Madrid the capital of European football as Real, Atletico look to assert power
MADRID -- "Tonight you have to show them," boomed the front page of Tuesday morning's Marca.
On this occasion it was an exhortation to both of Madrid's football powers. The city has had more than its share of seismic Champions League nights in recent seasons but this one feels a little different. Since Atletico's resurgence as a continental force under Diego Simeone the two have never (fixtures between themselves apart) played decisive European games concurrently, but on Tuesday evening most neighbourhoods will come to something approaching a standstill.
The odds are firmly in favour of celebrations on both sides and it is not hard to see why. Real, on the rack for 45 minutes against Bayern Munich last week, return to the Bernabeu with a narrow 2-1 win but two potentially decisive away goals. Atletico would have liked a bigger margin of victory than the 1-0 against Leicester but it would still be a major surprise if they slipped up at the King Power and it would take a significant turnaround for nerves in the Spanish capital to be jangling en masse.
Perhaps that is why, despite the evening's gravity, there is a sense of simply needing to get the job done. The past three seasons have, after all, brought two finals and one quarterfinal -- all won by Real, of course -- between the pair.
In that time, Madrid has established itself as Europe's true football capital; pulsating with the success of two very different clubs with contrasting ways of going about their business. The benchmark has been set and it is much more tempting to look forward, and to the distinct possibility of another Derbi Madrileno, than contemplate the chance of failure at this relatively early stage of the competition.
Yet these are still ties loaded with significance and Real, in particular, have a small piece of history to make. "Total challenge" is what Marca called their task, which is to become the first-ever club to reach seven consecutive European Cup semifinals. It is not quite La Decima but things like this matter: They reaffirm, bit by bit, a club's perception of itself while -- on the flip side -- adding to the pressure. Real have gone 13 Champions League games without defeat, which is their best streak in the competition. They could lose to Bayern and still achieve their short-term target but that is an eventuality few feel the need to contemplate.
Real would love to get the job done relatively quickly, with Barcelona visiting the Bernabeu on Sunday for a Clasico that will effectively decide the La Liga title race. That may be a more realistic goal if Bayern don't get something from the doubtful trio of Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels and Robert Lewandowski. The former pair trained somewhat gingerly on Monday although Lewandowski, who was sorely missed by Bayern in a first leg that could have been put beyond Real before Cristiano Ronaldo turned the tie on its head, will be risked by Carlo Ancelotti.
The home side have an absentee of their own in Gareth Bale, who probably will be replaced by Isco. "We've forgotten the first leg and will go out to win," Zinedine Zidane said in his prematch news conference. "Bayern will put pressure on us until the end."
They will certainly need to and Real, for all that they can be backed to progress, also will require a more convincing start than they made at the Allianz Arena if this is to be anything approaching a comfortable night.
Sufficient improvement should make the returns of Ancelotti, who set the ball rolling on Real's new European era by masterminding that Decima in 2014, and Xabi Alonso all the more worthy of celebration.
Real are chasing history but also have the past on their side: Only twice since the Champions League began have teams overturned first-leg home defeats and should that theme continue Tuesday there will be plenty of room for generosity where old friends and colleagues are concerned.
Will it pave the way for an all-Madrid semifinal? That would certainly be a poetic occasion for the city, with Atletico to move out of their Vicente Calderon stadium a few weeks from now. Should Simeone & Co. fulfil their side of the bargain in Leicester, it would seem like the kind of date with football destiny this city lives and breathes for: one last derby, one final distillation of so much meaning and so many memories.
So while the relative novelty of this double shootout will keep Madrid rapt on Tuesday evening, it is the growing promise of even more famous nights to come that really holds the attention.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.