Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone has played down the view that his in-form side are favourites against an ailing AC Milan in Wednesday’s Champions League last 16 first leg at San Siro.
Milan are currently ninth in the Serie A standings, a full 31 points adrift of leaders Juventus, and have won just four of their last 12 home matches without appearing to be overly boosted by Clarence Seedorf’s recent arrival as coach.
Meanwhile Atletico, despite a recent blip, are still joint-top of La Liga right up alongside the big two of Barcelona and Real Madrid, and were one of only three teams undefeated in autumn’s Champions League group stages.
But the Colchoneros coach told his prematch news conference that neither he nor his team could afford to go onto the pitch thinking they had any advantage in the tie.
“I do not believe in ‘favourites,’” Simeone said. “You see that on the pitch. We have to play a good game, to be concentrated in the tie. Italian teams take games in stages. A lot of what we do in the game will be reliant on the concentration we have in the play.”
Milan’s hopes are also hit by both regular central midfielders Riccardo Montolivo and Sulley Muntari being suspended, while Atletico have goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois fit again after a back problem, and attacker David Villa recovered from a hamstring strain, though the Spain striker is only likely to make the bench].
Despite this apparent player for player advantage, Simeone said he was treating Milan as a very dangerous opponent.
“I expect the best Milan,” he said. “They attack well down the wings, their players inside area also very good. They have players who can be deadly on the counter. Milan also have good height at set-pieces. I expect Milan at their best.”
Many Milan fans and pundits have put their faith in their club’s prestigious history of winning seven European Cup trophies, against Atletico’s record of just one losing final over three decades ago. However, Simeone -- who led Atletico to Europa League glory in 2012 -- maintained that his side also had a proud heritage to draw on.
“History can have a weight in games,” he said. “Milan are powerful on a social level, they have many important achievements, but whenever Atletico has been able to take part in [European] Cups, the team has a history. Today’s players will be the protagonists.”
The Argentine admitted it would be special for him to return to a stadium where he starred as an Inter Milan player between 1997 and 1999, and scored a memorable derby goal against Milan in a 3-0 win in March 1998.
“For me yes, but I will not be playing,” he said. “I have a great memory of my time here and I am sure it will be a nice game to play in. I had extraordinary years at Inter, I have friends here. To play at a ground like San Siro is very important for a player.”