Diego Simeone has backed Spain star Koke to play a crucial role in propelling his team into the Champions League quarter-finals in tonight’s second leg clash with Bayer Leverkusen.
The German team head into the encounter with a 1-0 lead from the first leg, a scoreline which failed to reflect their overall dominance following an impressive display at the BayArena.
But Simeone insisted he remains confident in his team’s ability to progress, and believes that Koke – who missed the first leg through injury – could prove the catalyst for a famous victory.
“We will have to pressurise the opponents and then go forward very quickly when they lose the ball,” said the Argentine boss. “And Koke allows us to play a much more dynamic game thanks to his mental speed.”
Chances Created Per Game in the Champions League Messi 3.6 Nani 3.4 Koke 3 Fuchs 2.8 Calhanoglu 2.7 Fabregas 2.7 Schweinsteiger 2.7
— EPL Stat Man (@EPLStatman) March 11, 2015
Simeone also accepted that his team need to significantly improve upon their first leg showing, suggesting that they were somewhat surprised by Bayer’s pace and intensity.
“Bayer are a very vertical team,” he said. “They have little possession of the ball but they are very direct – that is their best virtue as a team.
“Their three up front are very fast, and they are able to use that pace in the final third by winning second balls. We know that we need to be able to counter these parts of the game, which we could not do in the first half in Germany.”
He also called upon Atletico fans – famed for their ability to create an electric atmosphere inside the Vicente Calderon stadium – to get right behind his team.
“I expect the Calderon to push us on,” he said. “I hope and expect that there won’t be even one moment of silence.”
Simeone will be without defender Diego Godin and midfielder Tiago through suspension, and his main selection decision is whether to include Mario Mandzukic or Fernando Torres alongside Antoine Griezmann in attack.
Bayer’s general manager Michael Schade, meanwhile, has warned his players to prepare for a physical battle against Atletico’s famously aggressive team.
“They’re going to scratch, bite, kick and provoke…everything that we know,” Schade said.
However, Schade – who works closely alongside Bayer coach Roger Schmidt – also conceded that the hosts possess plenty of quality within their ranks, adding: “We also know that they can play football. “Otherwise, they would not be the champions of Spain and finalists in last season’s Champions League. It will be very difficult for us.”
Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini has again defended his position following increased speculation over his future. Pellegrini is under growing scrutiny as City’s season threatens to unravel and end in underachievement.
City now seem unlikely to retain their Premier League crown having fallen six points behind Chelsea, who have a game in hand, after a run of just three wins in nine games.
Their hopes of salvaging something from the campaign now seem to comedown to the unlikely prospect of overturning a 2-1 deficit at Barcelona in the Champions League on Wednesday.
City axed Roberto Mancini after a frustrating 2012/13 season, just a year after winning the title, and – based on that – Pellegrini’s prospects could be bleak. But the Chilean, who last week expressed desire to stay beyond the end of his current contract in 2016, has reiterated his belief that is not the situation.
Pellegrini, in a wide-ranging interview with the Guardian and Daily Mail newspapers, said: “Roberto left the club for other reasons, not because he didn’t win anything one year.
“It’s not ‘if you don’t win, you’re out’. Of course winning trophies here is extremely important. I understand you can’t just say, ‘It doesn’t matter, we’ll come in fourth or fifth because we’ve got a longterm project’.
“But in the last four years this team has won two leagues, come second once, and won the FA Cup and the Capital One Cup. I have never felt the situation is that if I don’t win I am out whatever happens.”
City have not built on last year’s second title success in three seasons and Pellegrini feels his team is still lacking a “crack” player to complement the firepower he already has.
Last summer’s spending had to be restricted as punishment for the club’s failure to comply with European governing body UEFA’s Financial Fair Play restrictions.
Pellegrini said: “This year we improved the squad while working within those limits. What we did not do was bring in a crack. I think this team now needs a crack, another special player just to give us that sense that we are now at another level.
“I was at Malaga, a club in debt, so I understand that you have to avoid clubs having unsustainable budgets, accumulating unpaid debts. “But preventing you from investing, speculating, is absurd. It’s anticompetitive.”
Returning Real Madrid star Sergio Ramos has given his unequivocal backing to under-fire manager Carlo Ancelotti after the Italian coach was whistled by a small section of the Bernabeu crowd during Sunday’s home win over Levante.
The 2-0 victory, secured by a first half brace from Gareth Bale, got Los Blancos back into winning ways after their previous three outings resulted in one draw and two defeats.
But the reaction from the Bernabeu public was far from overjoyed, with some supporters responding with whistles when other fans chanted Ancelotti’s name towards the end of the encounter.
Ramos, who made his return to action following a six-week lay-off with a hamstring injury, believes Ancelotti should be given greater respect by the team’s supporters, saying: “He’s a great manager and, more than that, a great person. He knows how to deal with situations like this.”
The experience centre back also appeared to take a swipe at Ancelotti’s predecessor Jose Mourinho, with whom he endured a famously tempestuous relationship, as he added: “If there’s a coach who deserves respect, considering what others have been allowed to do or forgiven for, it’s Ancelotti.”
Somebody else receiving support from Ramos was frontman Cristiano Ronaldo, who looked a picture of frustration throughout Sunday’s game as he squandered a series of chances to remain goalless for the fifth time in his last seven league outings.
In particular, Ronaldo has been criticised for petulant reactions to Bale’s two goals, with the Portuguese star clearly looking irritated that he did not find the target himself before begrudgingly going over to offer half-hearted congratulations to the Welshman.
Ramos, however, insisted that Ronaldo’s sulkiness is part and parcel of his greatness and argued that any irritation he demonstrates is only with himself, not with his teammates who happen to score at his expense.
“Being Cristiano is difficult, he’s been at such a high level for so many years,” reasoned Ramos.
“He knows that better than anyone. He’s used to scoring 60 goals a year and when he gets 40 he’s not happy – he has a very competitive character and nobody will change it. But we’re not worried about him gesturing. We need to be grateful for what he brings to the side.”
And after being absent for his team’s recent dip in form, Ramos was delighted to be back in action and believes his team can head into next weekend’s Clasico with confidence despite their recent struggles.
“I was really keen to get back playing and perform at my top level, and the best way to do that is with a win,” he said. “We’re not playing well, but in the Clasico our honour and badge are at stake.”