Atletico’s backline has been depleted by injuries and coach Diego Simeone will have to improvise when his team takes on Real Madrid on Tuesday in the first leg of their semi-final.
Simeone won’t be able to count on key defensive players such as Jose Gimenez and Juanfran for the game at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, and they may not even recover in time for the second leg at Vicente Calderon Stadium next week.
‘We will find the solutions,’ Simeone said, staying positive.
Atletico have lost three straight times to Real in the Champions League, including the 2014 and 2016 finals.
The same stout defence which helped to carry Atletico to those finals has earned the team the best record in the Spanish league, with only 25 goals conceded in 35 games.
But Gimenez was the latest player to go down, hurting a left leg muscle in the Liga win at Las Palmas over the weekend.
Gimenez is a central defender but was playing as a right back to replace Juanfran, who was out with a hamstring ailment.
Juanfran’s immediate substitute at right-back is Sime Vrsaljko, but he has been sidelined because of a left knee injury, and is not expected to be back in time for the first leg, even though he has already returned to training.
Without a specialist right back, Simeone could use his other central defender, Sefan Savic. That would mean adding youngster Lucas Hernandez to the middle of the defense to replace Savic, who has played as a right back for Montenegro.
That would break up the solid duo of Savic and Diego Godin, who have started most matches in central defense.
‘The absences are important because it will be a new situation for the player who will have to play in that position,’ Simeone said. ‘But this is a team sport and the rest of the squad can make up for that.’
The coach may also improvise by playing a midfielder such as Saul Niguez or Jorge ‘Koke’ Resurreccion on the right side, where Real is expected to do most of their attacking through Cristiano Ronaldo and left-back Marcelo.
Ronaldo, who prepared for the entire season to be in his best physical condition at this point, scored five goals in the quarterfinals against Bayern Munich. Marcelo, Real’s assist leader, scored the winner against Valencia in the Spanish league on Saturday.
Atletico’s defence struggled early this season when Simeone tried different formations in an attempt to make the team more attack-minded, but the changes led to more goals being conceded and a loss of valuable points early on in the Spanish league.
The coach has found the right balance, keeping the team unbeaten in 11 games and conceding only four goals in their last 12 matches in all competitions.
Atletico is virtually out of the title race in the Spanish league. They are fighting Sevilla for third place, but their focus is solely on eliminating Real and getting another shot at the European title that has eluded the club so far. Atletico also lost the final in 1974, to Bayern Munich.