For Diego Simeone, Atlético Madrid versus Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League is nothing new. The two clubs faced off in the 1996/97 group stages, with Simeone featuring in midfield at the Vicente Calderón (he was suspended for the return match).
That season began with plenty of fanfare for both clubs. Under Serbian manager Radomir Antić — the only man to manage Atlético, Real Madrid and Barcelona — Atlético had won a Liga/Copa double the season before. Hoping to keep the titles coming, club president Jesús Gil spent big in the offseason. He brought in target forward Juan Esnáider from Real Madrid and immediately gave him the number nine shirt. Gil also recruited Slavia Prague defensive midfielder Radek Bejbl, a key cog in the Czech Republic’s surprise Euro 1996 finalists. Those two signings joined Spanish stalwarts Roberto and Kiko as well as Serbian Milinko Pantić, the creative number 10 who spearheaded the double-winning side with double digit goals (including the winning strike in the Copa del Rey) and numerous key passes and assists.
(Aside: after his retirement, Pantić became a coach in Atlético’s youth system. He eventually managed Dalian Yifang, where Yannick Carrasco and Nico Gaitán currently play.)
Despite the investment, Atlético were relatively unprepared to compete on two fronts in 1996/97. By the time they played their two matches in two weeks against Dortmund in October, Atleti had more or less fallen out of the title race. When they visited the Westfalenstadion on Oct. 30, they sat 10th in LaLiga. The Champions League had become their main competition.
BVB, though, had captured the previous two Bundesliga titles and were regulars in the Champions League. Manager Ottmar Hitzfield took the reins in 1991 and led BVB to immediate success with runner-up league finish in 1992 and a UEFA Cup runner-up finish in 1993 — Dortmund fell to Juventus 6-1 on aggregate.
Nevertheless, during the 1996/97 campaign there was a sense that the club felt the need to right some wrongs. Dortmund had capitulated to Ajax in the Champions League quarterfinals the previous year — 3-0 on aggregate — and it didn’t seem as though the football world at large saw the Black and Yellows as serious threats.
Similarly to the current side, that Dortmund squad brimmed with young, under-the-radar talent, much of it homegrown. Captain and center-half Matthias Sammer won the Ballon d’Or in 1996 after a strong showing for the Euro-winning German side. Keeper Stefan Klos likely would have become a bigger name, but he could never beat out Oliver Kahn as Germany’s first-choice keeper. The strike partnership of Swiss Stéphane Chapuisat and German Karl-Heinz Reidle tormented opposing defenses. Playmakers Paulo Sousa and Andreas Möller and defender Júlio César had all joined Dortmund from Juventus after they beat BVB in the ‘93 UEFA Cup final.
Mirroring 2018, Dortmund and Atlético were clearly the top two in a group that also featured Polish side Widzew Łódź and Romanian giants Steaua București. Atleti dominated much of the first meeting at the Calderón on Oct. 16 as they created the better chances and attacked with gusto. The colchoneros nearly scored on the stroke of halftime, but Klos made a fine reaction save to keep things level.
Just after halftime, Dortmund right back Stefan Reuter received a throw-in and bull-in-a-china-shopped his way past three Atlético defenders. He benefitted from a few fortunate deflections before he poked an odd, mishit shot past keeper José Francisco Molina.
Late in the match, Esnáider — the big summer striker signing — blew a tap-in (some things never change). Cholo Simeone had a chance to tie the match near the death. He found himself with a free header off a corner kick, a chance Diego Godín or Comandante Giménez would’ve buried. But it wasn’t to be, and Cholo sent his header over the bar and into orbit. Klos made several key second-half saves to see out the result, and BVB left the banks of the Manzanares with a 1-0 win.
In the return fixture two weeks later at the Westfalenstadion, Dortmund struck quickly. Heiko Herrlich gave them a 17th minute lead, but Atlético showed a grit that has come to define them. They quickly got back on the front foot, and Pantić produced an absolute ankle-breaker and shot across Klos that rattled the post.
Atlético equalized in the 37th minute and channeled their next league-winning side when Roberto’s downward header from a corner helped the ball trickle over the line. Minutes later, Pantić produced a moment of magic — a divine free kick from an impossible angle that bent just out of Klos’ reach. The ball kissed the far post and rolled slowly into the back of the net.
The second half would be familiar to any modern Atlético supporter. The red and whites withstood plenty of pressure and got a key goal line clearance to see out the 2-1 win.
Atleti would eventually top the group on goal differential but lost to Ajax after extra time in the quarterfinals. Even with the premature exit, Pantić was top scorer in the Champions League with five goals.
Dortmund, however, wound up winning the whole thing after they beat a Juventus team that featured Zinedine Zidane, Didier Deschamps and Christian Vieri (who would join Atleti during the summer and win the Pichichi the following season).
In fact, Atleti were the only team to defeat the Germans on their way to the European Cup.
While both clubs have changed significantly in the years since those mid-nineties showdowns, certain elements remain the same. Both clubs have significant aspirations on two fronts — their respective leagues and the Champions League. Cholo Simeone is still involved. Dortmund still feature plenty of young talent, although they sign players on a more global scale in 2018 and do not currently feature a Ballon d’Or candidate. Atlético still rely on a spectacular Eastern European (Jan Oblak in Pantić’s place) and a cadre of Spanish stars (Koke, Saúl, Rodri as opposed to Kiko and Roberto). And in terms of playing style, Antoine Griezmann likely plays the Pantić role in the current side.
Just as in 1996, this first fixture in Germany on Wednesday figures to determine who tops the group. While first place can lead to an easier knockout stage matchup, as BVB demonstrated in ‘96, both sides can do some damage in the quarters and beyond — given they advance.