Andrew Flint –
Lokomotiv Moscow vs Atlético Madrid – Tuesday, October 1, 20:00 BST/21:00 CEST – RZD Arena, Moscow – Russia
Last season should have represented the glorious return to Champions League football after an absence of 13 years for Lokomotiv Moscow. The draw was kind to them; a crisis-ridden Schalke, a Porto that had only won their first domestic title in five years the summer before and a Galatasaray that was widely expected to be the whipping boys of the group. The pathetically limp displays that followed were quite frankly an embarrassment. Schalke themselves were poor but at least organised enough to capitalise with a late winner through Weston McKennie, while Porto had little trouble dispatching Yuriy Semin’s men home and away. Without so much as a whimper, Lokomotiv were already knocked out after just four matches.
This time round their opponents could hardly be any tougher. All three of Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus and this week’s visitors Atlético Madrid have made at least the semi-finals of the Champions League since the turn of the century, with the latter two both reaching more than one final. Given the capitulations of the last campaign one might expect even more emphatic results, but a sign of their maturity came in the first matchday when they completely overturned the odds and beat Leverkusen in Germany. Grzegorz Krychowiak was imperious in midfield, as he has been all season, while Semin’s men looked more or less in control.
There is a steelier look to this edition of the Railroaders. The defence has been rejuvenated to an extent by the arrivals of versatile youngsters Dmitri Zhivolgyadov and Murilo Cerqueira, while the development of Rifat Zhemaletdinov from wasted promise to first-choice winger has effectively added an extra option. João Mário has accepted a loan spell from Internazionale in search of regular football and is already seemingly intent on making up for lost time as he pulls the strings. The lack of pace and recovery is an issue in the centre of defence, in particular former World Cup winner Benedikt Höwedes, so to combat that Semin has adapted Cerqueira’s role to a protective shield for the backline in recent weeks.
While Spain’s traditional duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid has faltered in recent years – relative to their reputations and past histories – with managerial changes and disruption at board level, Atlético Madrid have carved out a niche for themselves by doing things rigidly their own way. As their iconic Vicente Calderón lies demolished on the Madrid skyline they have built a powerful dynasty of players sharing a fearsome confidence and belief in Simeone’s disciplined outlook. An equally seismic reconstruction of the squad has altered short-term prospects though, as Euan McTear, author of Hijacking La Liga, explains. “Atlético Madrid are in a season of transition. There’s no doubt about it. Having lost leaders like Diego Godín, Antoine Griezmann, Juanfran, Filipe Luis and even young talents like Rodri and Lucas Hernández, they’re in rebuilding mode.
“So I think this season is about competing well and bringing the new guys through. I think their goals in the Champions League are to go one better than last year and to reach the quarter-finals, but I think they know they’re not a favourite to win it and there’s also less expectation and pressure than last year when they had the final in their stadium.”
If a battle is what Lokomotiv plan to give Atlético, they had better be prepared. Diego Costa’s combustible character as a physical presence and a player will make life incredibly uncomfortable for the veteran defenders at the heart of Lokomotiv’s defence. “The troops of El Cholo [Simeone] continued to show their greatest virtue in all his campaigns, which is none other than competing,” wrote Marca in the aftermoath of last weekend’s battle against Real. “Despite this being the first derby without Godín, Filipe and Griezmann, the new leaders as much as the new signings have shown the same solidity.”
There is a potential vulnerability that can be exploited if Lokomotiv are smart though. Juventus achieved a rare feat by scoring not just once but twice on matchday one in Madrid; while repeating the feat will be far harder in practice than it already undoubtedly is in theory, it has been shown to be possible. Jan Oblak is regarded by many to be the finest goalkeeper on the planet and yet has conceded two goals in each of his last three matches for the first time in his career. If there is anyone who will put his blood, sweat and tears into not extending that run – and inspiring that will within his players – it is Simeone.
Lokomotiv Moscow vs Atlético Madrid – Players to Watch
Fedor Smolov #9 – Lokomotiv Moscow
It has not always been the smoothest path back to the top for Smolov, but he is finally hitting the kind of form that his sensational early promise foretold. At the weekend he was involved in a hugely significant win over Zenit St. Petersburg in which he leapt higher than two defenders and the goalkeeper to bullet home a classic centre forward’s goal, only to see it controversially ruled out due to VAR’s intervention. His reaction at half time was to suggest Zenit are favoured in a brief glimpse of his single-minded approach that counted against him. This season he has faced one of his toughest challenges; once again regaining his momentum after a confidence-shattering 2018 saw him drop out of favour as Russia golden boy. He may not be prolific yet this season, but his movement and instinct are going to be critical against one of Europe’s most renowned defences.
João Félix #7 – Atlético Madrid
It is hard to recall a rise as meteoric as the Portuguese wonderkid swept into the Spanish capital with his boyish charm and ruthless footballing brain. Eighteen months ago, virtually nobody outside his homeland had heard his name; after showing his seemingly endless talent and the confidence of someone twice his age, he now has the world at his feet. In a summer where Atlético Madrid saw over €300 million of talent leave but still seemingly end up stronger than before, Félix fills a crucial role in Simeone’s system. While many assume Los Colchoneros are an inherently defensive team, they only function successfully with an enigmatic creative cog operating between the lines. Antoine Griezmann was the star in this sense before his protracted move to Barcelona; Félix is arguably even more dangerous.
Lokomotiv Moscow vs Atlético Madrid – Match Stats
- The last time these two teams met was 18 months ago in the Europa League round of 16; Atlético destroyed Lokomotiv 5-1 in Moscow
- In their last four home games in the Champions League, Lokomotiv have lost three with the only victory coming in a dead rubber clash with Galatasaray when they were already out of contention to make the knockouts
- Atlético have scored eight goals in their two visits to face Lokomotiv in Moscow, and have never lost overall to the Railroaders
- They have lost just three of their last 11 European away matches
- In six trips to the Russian capital, Atlético have never lost (W4, D2)
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Lokomotiv Moscow vs Atlético Madrid – 1-3
Lokomotiv Moscow vs Atlético Madrid – Possible lineups
Guilherme – Ignatyev, Corluka, Höwedes, Rybus – Cerquiera – Zhemaletdinov, Kyrchowiak, Barinov, João Mário – Smolov
Manager: Yuriy Semin
Oblak – Trippier, Giménez, Savić, Renan Lodi – Lemar, Partey, Saúl, Koke – Félix – Costa
Manager: Diego Simeone
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.