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History Lesson, Part I: Borussia Dortmund-Atlético Madrid, two decades on

Atlético Madrid visit Borussia Dortmund next week in a pivotal Champions League fixture. In part one of two, Mikeie Reiland details how the Group A giants match up at present.

Club Atletico de Madrid v SD Huesca - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Atlético Madrid take on in-form, Bundesliga-topping Borussia Dortmund at the Westfalenstadion next Wednesday in a match which should showcase two contrasting styles.

Dortmund appear reborn under Lucien Favre, crashing forward in waves, the whole team involved in buildup. BVB have scored at least three goals on six occasions so far this season, including a 7-0 beatdown of newly-promoted Nuremberg — a result that prompted praise of Favre’s style as “modern jazz”. BVB have also already beaten second place RB Leipzig by four goals to one, and although Bayern Munich’s poor form has helped matters the Black and Yellows have yet to taste defeat under the Swiss.

Dortmund have always stockpiled young talent, hoping to develop two or three big hits to sell on for massive profits — players like Ousmane Démbèle, Mario Götze, İlkay Gündoğan and even Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang come to mind. Swedish striker Alexander Isak — signed in winter 2017 and labelled the “next Zlatan” in some outlets — was classic Dortmund: slightly speculative, but relatively low-risk with the chance to pay off massively.

Favre ran out a starting XI with an average age of 24.7 against Nuremberg. The pick of the litter could be 18 year-old British starlet Jadon Sancho, who has a goal and six assists in 215 Bundesliga minutes and just earned his first call-up to the England national team. Christian Pulisic — the 20 year-old USMNT star — also has a significant argument as the team’s most promising player, one who offers fearless dribbling and an improved final ball.

Barcelona flop Paco Alcacer is thriving in the Bundesliga, as he’s scored six goals in less than 90 total league minutes, one every 13.5 minutes. He scored a hat trick off the bench — including a match-winning free kick in stoppage time — in a come-from-behind 4-3 win over Augsburg in their final fixture before the international break. Achraf Hakimi has also impressed in the Rhineland since joining on loan from Real Madrid. Unlike years past, Marco Reus — Germany’s Gareth Bale, perhaps — was finally healthy (until this week).

Jadon Sancho
Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Just as “the king stay the king,” Atlético stay Atlético. It seems like every summer, the club brings in shiny new toys, attacking options who promise to add a different element. After all, it’s not hard to get excited at the prospect of fewer white-knuckled 1-0 victories against relegation strugglers.

Although a new, more exciting Atleti always seems appealing, the club is often better off for reverting to what they know best. Shiny new toys like Yannick Carrasco, Nicolás Gaitán, Kévin Gameiro and musical sensation Jackson Martínez haven’t exactly panned out.

Nevertheless, this year’s squad actually feels somewhat different, evolved. In Rodri, Atlético have found a Sergio Busquets-like metronome, a passmaster who can help them win and keep the ball more than in years past. In theory — albeit not in practice just yet — Rodri’s ability to shield the back four and anchor the midfield will free up Saúl Ñíguez to play as he does for Spain, roaming further up the pitch, making late runs into the box and generally scoring more goals. At different points in both Madrid Derbies this season, Atleti maintained lengthy, Rodri-centric spells of possession that never could have happened in years past, spells that audibly made the Madrid faithful restless given that they were so unprecedented in that particular fixture.

Another reason this year’s squad feels like a tad different is the club’s marquee offseason signing appears to be drinking the Kool-Aid. Thomas Lemar has brought his as-advertised technical quality, dribbling and combination play to the capital. However, he’s also brought a wicked left-footed shot and a willingness to grind for the greater good, a key quality in any good Cholismo lieutenant.

How will the match play out? Diego Simeone seems to derive particular pleasure from parking the bus against these young, trendy, ballyhooed teams. He’ll hand the other team 70 percent possession, trust Jan Oblak and the backline to do their jobs and either pinch a scrappy goal on the counter or settle for a goalless stalemate. He’ll immediately stalk down the tunnel at the final whistle, a picture of satisfaction in his all-black outfit, commitment to the old ways confirmed. (See last season’s goalless draw versus Quique Setién’s Real Betis, everyone’s darlings in LaLiga).

Or maybe Dortmund’s youth will win out in front of their intimidating Yellow Wall and BVB will claim their first big club scalp of the campaign. Not only that, it would be the first time they’ve toppled Atleti at their home ground following — an earlier effort from October 1996 didn’t quite go as planned.