UEFA Champions League Preview: Which Atlético Madrid will meet Milan at the San Siro?

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It’s not just that Milan has struggled all season, their 10th place standing in Serie A a testament to the club’s most disappointing seasons in 15 years. It’s the fact that they matchup particularly poorly against Atlético Madrid, a team as comfortable without the ball as with. For a Rossoneri side strong in possession but weak in defense — a team that’s had trouble keeping goals off the scoresheet against capable counter attackers Napoli and Juventus (allowing eight in three games) — it’s a potential recipe for a landslide. As a Milan team that’s had trouble converting possession into goals presses for a home result, Atlético forwards Diego Costa and David Villa will get their chances against central defenders Adil Rami and Cristian Zaccardo.

Given how Atlético’s performed for most of this season, that’s how this game should play out, but in light of the Rojiblancos’ recent slide, the extent to which ‘most of this season’ applies is open to debate. Through the beginning of February, Atlético had only lost once all season. Then, in the span of eight days, Atleti lost three times: twice to Real Madrid; once to Almería. Though they bounced back this weekend with a 3-0 win over Valladolid (scoring twice in the first four minutes), 90 minutes weren’t enough to answer all questions. Has the Atlético that blew through the first five months of this season returned, or has February brought them back to earth?

[MORE: Champions League matchup with Atlético Madrid a cursed blessing for Milan’s Seedorf]

If February’s Atlético is not the same team that tore through fall, Milan has reason to think they can advance. Though they have not been convincing since Clarence Seedorf took over for Max Allegri as head coach on Jan. 16, the team has improved, enough so that talents like Mario Balotelli and Kaká could craft a tie-turning goal if needed. If Atletico are closer to Milan’s level than they appeared this fall, the Rossoneri can play for that one crucial goal. They can play a possession game that waits (rather than pushes) for openings, trusting that a 180-minute game will produce at least one opportunity.

That’s Milan’s best hope, but consider the odds of that situation coming to fruition. In the six months since the 2013-14 season started, Atlético has had one back week. While that week has come relatively recently, it’s also been put into the near past by the team’s weekend result against Valladolid. What are the odds that, over this two-leg tie, Atlético will regress to that poor form? And what are the odds Diego Simeone’s team will play as they have throughout the other five-plus months of the season?

[MORE: Atlético Madrid make a statement before Champions League matchup against Milan]

The only argument that sees Milan as a realistic threat relies on the irrelevant: history. With seven European titles, Milan is European elite, a status the means nothing come kickoff on Wednesday. While those results may translate into faith among the fanbase and some belief within the team, they also say nothing about the capabilities of the current squad. Better measures of Milan’s potential to upset Atlético are this year’s results, few of which recommend the Rossoneri as potential quarterfinalists.

Even if with midfield linchpin Tiago and left back Felipe Luis unlikely to play, Atlético should be considered heavy favorites to advance. The principles that allowed them to join Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain’s title race will still be evident on the field. Consistently able to outwork opponents without unduly exposing themselves, Atlético has developed a way to match up with almost any team in the world, their faith in their own effort making them a dark house in both Spain and Europe.

Whether Milan can match their effort will depend on the Atlético that shows up at the San Siro. If it’s the team that struggled throughout the middle of February, the Rossoneri can claim a result. If it’s the team that’s defined Atlético’s 2013-14 surge, Milan will be out of their league.

Agent: “There’s no hatred” between Bale, Ronaldo

Gareth Bale & Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid CF
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Gareth Bale doesn’t at all dislike Cristiano Ronaldo — or vice versa — despite what may seem a lukewarm on-field relationship between the two Real Madrid superstars, insists Jonathan Barnett, agent of Bale.

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Instead, Barnett insists that the two men with very different personalities have a healthy relationship, and competition, that pushes each Galactico to be the best player he can be.

Barnett, on Bale’s relationship with Ronaldo — quotes from the Guardian:

“They don’t go out eating every night together, but it’s fine. There’s no hatred there. Gareth is a quiet guy. They’re complete opposites. But I think Gareth can learn a little bit from Ronaldo as well, interacting maybe a little bit. But he wants his own life and he lives it. Gareth is a great footballer, he doesn’t want anything more. He has some very good endorsements but his whole life is to be the best footballer in the world. I don’t think he wants to be the best model in the world or the best underwear seller. That’s not him.”

That’s a hilarious closing quote from Barnett, but he knows exactly how some folks are going to interpret it: “Bale thinks Ronaldo loves himself too much.”

[ MORE: Giroud: “I must harden myself” to unseat Walcott ]

There’s nothing better for the ultimate success of a team than healthy, friendly competition between teammates who are spectacularly talented as Ronaldo and Bale. The former will only be around to perform at his current level for so much longer, but at what point does the latter officially take the torch and supplant Madrid’s biggest star, and how accepting will he be of passing that proverbial torch?

Olivier Giroud: “I must harden myself” to unseat Walcott

Olivier Giroud, France
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Is it just me, or does the press really only ever get noteworthy quotes from players during international breaks?

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I suppose it’s not surprising, given Premier League players get away from the mean ole British press, go back to their respective homelands and speak with journalists they’ve likely known since their early playing days, thus feel more comfortable opening up about key issues.

Anyway, today we have Olivier Giroud essentially calling himself out for having lost the starting striker’s job at Arsenal because he’s been outplayed of late by Theo Walcott. As discussed before, this is bad news for Giroud because he’s now falling down the depth chart for France with next summer’s European Championship on the horizon.

[ MORE: Aguero admits he wants Guardiola link-up ]

Giroud, on losing his place at Arsenal — quotes from the Guardian:

“At Arsenal, I am in competition with Theo for the striker position. But he is doing well at the moment, so there is no reason to change.

“Whether it was at Tours, Montpellier or Arsenal, I have never experienced a situation like this, I have often played from the start. I need to take positives and to harden myself mentally. It is something new for me.

“I was in [Walcott’s] place in previous seasons at Arsenal. I imagine what he must have been thinking. But I feel that the coach believes in me.”

Giroud goes on to cast into doubt his own confidence, stating in very certain terms he needs “to believe more in [his] abilities.” Giroud’s always come across as a bit of an existentialist, but it’s always strange to hear players publicly call themselves out — particularly their confidence — as if that’s not going to increase the pressure currently weighing down on them.

[ MORE: Rodgers reportedly chosen to take over at Aston Villa ]

The next eight months are going to be monumentally important in Giroud’s career, as the 29-year-old attempts to prove he’s worth keeping around at Arsenal and deserving of a place in the national team squad for next summer’s EUROs, which are to be played in France.