Diego Simeone was at pains Friday to insist meeting Real Madrid for a fourth successive season in the Champions League is not about “revenge”.
And while that may be true, justice may be the more apt motivation as Los Rojiblancos have come up short in each of those four previous encounters – two finals and one quarter-final tie – despite outplaying their richer neighbours in at least three of the matches.
While that is a matter of opinion, the significant fact is that Real Madrid swelled their European Cup haul from nine to 11 while Atletico are still waiting for their first.
Real have become their bete noir on the continent as Diego Simeone has transformed Atletico into a genuine European superpower yet just as they look poised to be rewarded for their growth with club football’s greatest prize, up pops a shirtless Cristiano Ronaldo to hammer home the fundamental difference between the two clubs.
It was only a small margin but in an online poll conducted by Madrid daily AS ahead of Friday’s semi-final draw, just over 53 per cent of Atleti fans wanted them in the last four as opposed to the final.
In facing a technically-superior side, the nominated underdog would usually choose the latter but in this case the dynamic is flipped.
While Real have arguably the more gifted individuals – Antoine Griezmann and Koke aside – Atleti’s defensive discipline makes them a devilishly difficult side to beat over 180 minutes.
Diego Simeone FC. 3 semi finals in 4 seasons.— Olly (@Giroudesquee) April 18, 2017
In one game, anything can happen… a last minute Sergio Ramos equaliser for example. But over two legs at the Bernabeu and Vicente Calderon, Zinedine Zidane needs a gameplan to counter-act Simeone.
Despite his successful first season in charge of Los Blancos, and a sophomore campaign which is likely to yield the La Liga trophy, this will undoubtedly be the biggest test of his coaching career.
Atletico under Simeone have, more or less, honed a strategy to restrict Cristiano Ronaldo. This season’s hat-trick in the league meeting in November was something of a freak as the Portuguese had gone six frustrating games without a goal against Atleti. For a goalscorer of Ronaldo’s calibre, that classifies as a drought.
And outside of Ronaldo, goals haven’t been consistently forthcoming from Karim Benzema (seven in 20 matches in 2017) or Gareth Bale (goalless in six matches since his return from injury).
Zidane is yet to admit it but he clearly doubts Alvaro Morata’s quality, the Spanish international is restricted to minutes mainly against the minnows with just one start in Europe all season, which leaves options somewhat limited.
Madrid are still scoring goals – you have to go back to April 6 last year against Wolfsburg to the last time they failed to find the net – but Zidane needs to find a nuance to reinforce Ronaldo.
Just like in boxing, with styles making fights, the other semi-final provides an intriguing attack v defence narrative as a vibrant Monaco meet the Fort Knox-like fortifications of Juventus and their ‘BBC’ of Buffon, Bonucci and Chiellini.
Juve repelled the finest and most prolific attacking trio in modern football over two matches, which, in a performance sense has to be up there with all that the Bianconeri have achieved this decade.
That being said, the first leg against Barcelona showcased another side to Juve – a willingness to attack with purpose. An aspect of their play they have increasingly used when faced with teams who play a free-flowing and attacking game, allowing space to open up.
And Monaco are exactly that side as they’ve swept past Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund.
But while Kylian Mbappe, Thomas Lemar, Bernardo Silva and a born-again Falcao have dazzled, Juve represent a significantly more cerebral challenge.
City and Dortmund presented significant weaknesses in defence, all which were brutally exposed by Monaco’s liquid counter-attacking.
Allegri will simply not play that way as he doesn’t need to, with the security of Bonucci and Chiellini, and the ingenuity of Paulo Dybala and Miralem Pjanic at the other end of the field, another task for Leonardo Jardim with his side’s defensive acumen a concern.
Monaco will need to find a way to pick a lock few have been able to find the combination for.
And, right now, the semi-finals which, at base level, pit attack v defence, it’s the latter discipline which looks more likely to triumph.
After each Champions League week, Sport360 brings you the best five players from the UEFA Champions League, as chosen by you the supporters through our ValoraFutbol fan ratings tool.
YOU have direct influence on who appears in each top-five, so be sure to rate each weekend.
What do you make of this week’s ratings?
1) MARCELO (REAL MADRID) – 8.1
The Brazilian was at his energetic best, storming up and down that left side. He produced a great last-ditch block to deny Thiago a certain goal in the first half before clearing Arjen Robben’s second half effort off the line.
He went on several marauding runs forward too and pierced straight through the heart of Bayern Munich’s defence for Madrid’s and Cristiano Ronaldo’s third.
2) MATS HUMMELS (BAYERN MUNICH) – 8.0
He was a big reason why Madrid were kept at bay for over 70 minutes on home turf.
His block to deny a Toni Kroos from a glorious position was one of the best moments of his match.
We fought till the very end and left our hearts on the pitch. Unfortunately some things you just can't control...— Mats Hummels (@matshummels) April 18, 2017
Congrats to @realmadriden
3) CRISTIANO RONALDO (REAL MADRID) – 7.7
He didn’t really cover himself in glory in the first half with a few stray passes, clumsy touches and ineffective dribbles. However, you can’t keep him quiet for too long and he almost predictably struck first for Madrid to cancel out Robert Lewandowski’s penalty.
He then chested down a ball and drilled it home in extra-time before tapping in a third to complete his hat-trick.
Cristiano Ronaldo's hat-trick against Bayern Munich.— R A M E S H (@RameshK1902) April 18, 2017
The best ever. 👑 pic.twitter.com/XOiWlfNyBi
4) LEONARDO BONUCCI (JUVENTUS) – 7.5
Produced a masterful performance along with Giorgio Chiellini. He made several blocks and interceptions, was expertly positioned and dealt with everything in the air.
5) MARCO ASENSIO (REAL MADRID) – 7.5
The Madrid youngster was full of running when he came on after the hour mark. His mobility caused problems and capped a fine performance with a fourth goal for the hosts.
Asensio held off his man well as he zipped into the box and fired a right-footed effort into the far corner.
City rivals Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid will meet in the semi-finals of the Champions League, a repeat of both last year’s and the 2014 finals.
In the other semi-final, AS Monaco take on Juventus.
Real Madrid will host Atletico in the first semi on May 2, with Monaco welcoming Juventus on May 3.
The return legs will take place the following week, with the winners of the semi-finals will go on to contest the final at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium on June 2.
The UEFA Champions League 2016-17 semi-final draw ceremony took place at UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland on Friday.
Below is the draw in its entirety.