Atletico Madrid is preparing for what theoretically is its easiest Champions League opponent.
The team won’t be taking them lightly, though.
Atletico, which hosts Club Brugge on Wednesday, failed to advance to the knockout round last year following four straight seasons contending for the European title. The surprise elimination came after consecutive draws — away and at home — against Azeri club Qarabag.
Atletico finished the group with a home win over Roma and a draw at Chelsea, but it wasn’t enough to overturn the poor start.
Atletico opened this year’s competition with a 2-1 win at Monaco, and now it’s back at home, and playing against a team thought to be the weakest in Group A. Belgium champion Brugge is back in the group stage of the Champions League after a one-year absence. It opened with a 1-0 home loss to Borussia Dortmund.
“We will be facing a tough opponent,” Atletico coach Diego Simeone said on Tuesday. “If you saw them against Borussia, you saw that they played a great game.”
Club Brugge coach Ivan Leko said his team comes to Madrid motivated to be playing against one of the top clubs in Europe.
“Atletico is the favorite in this game and also to win the group,” Leko said. “We are the Cinderella team, but we’ve shown that we can play at this level. With some luck and a bad day for Atletico, maybe we can pull a small miracle.”
Last season’s debacle came following Atletico’s bittersweet move from its longtime fortress — the Vicente Calderon Stadium — to the modern Wanda Metropolitano, which is bigger but hasn’t provided the same raucous atmosphere. Many fans had feared the team would lose some of its home-field advantage, and the concerns persist a year later.
“I’m sorry if what I’m going to say offends anyone, but I prefer the Vicente Calderon,” Atletico midfielder Saul Niguez told Cadena SER radio last week. “Maybe because of how they built the new stadium, which is bigger and more open, you don’t hear the fans as much on the field. When I talk to players from other teams they say the same thing. It’s different from what it was at the Calderon.”
Atletico has already struggled at the Metropolitano this season, being held by Eibar to a 1-1 draw in the Spanish league last month. It had edged promoted Rayo Vallecano 1-0 and defeated Huesca 3-0 in its other two home games.
Despite Atletico’s struggles in the Champions League last season, the Metropolitano wasn’t in the team’s way as it went on to win the Europa League with victories in every home game.
Doing well at the 68,000-capacity stadium is crucial for Atletico if it wants to finally win its first Champions League title. The Metropolitano will host the competition’s final this season.
“There is this extra motivation to win the Champions League this time,” Niguez said. “But we are going day by day. It’s our philosophy.”
Atletico began its season with a win over Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup, and it has lost only once in eight matches since then — 2-0 at Celta Vigo. The team has not conceded a goal in three straight matches, including in last weekend’s derby against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, which ended 0-0.