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Atlético de Madrid - Athletic Club: Scratching the seven-year itch

The first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinal.

Real Madrid CF v Atletico Madrid - LaLiga EA Sports
Antoine Griezmann has scored more goals against Athletic (14) than any other opponent.
Photo by Diego Souto/Getty Images

Atlético de Madrid host Athletic Club on Wednesday night in the first leg of what will surely be an intense and tightly-contested Copa del Rey semifinal.

For the first time since 2017, Atlético Madrid are one of the last four teams standing in the Copa del Rey — but Athletic have been one of these teams for a while. Los Leones will be playing in the domestic cup semifinals for a fifth consecutive season, a stretch that has seen them progress to the final twice (in 2020 and in 2021) only to lose both times.

“Tomorrow, I hope for a huge atmosphere inside our stadium,” Diego Simeone told reporters on Tuesday. “We need our people more than ever, you can feel it when they’re with us because the team plays at another pace and with a different energy. Hopefully, we will have the support of our fans, because we need all of them.”

Atlético are unbeaten across its past six games and saw a five-game winning streak snapped at the weekend, when Marcos Llorente had to come to the rescue deep in second-half stoppage time to secure a 1-1 draw at Real Madrid. After playing the entire match on Sunday, Llorente might not start against Athletic — but Simeone on Tuesday reserved special praise for the versatile Spain international.

“Marcos started the other day as a wing-back, continued as a full-back, then moved to the wing and ended the game as a midfielder. The only role he didn’t play in was as a striker, where I also like him,” El Cholo said. “He’s an important player who’s already ready to do what the team needs. We need players with that essence.”

Athletic are coming off a 4-0 thumping of fellow Copa del Rey semifinalist Mallorca, but that victory at San Mamés came at a cost. Brothers Nico and Iñaki Williams were both substituted in the second half due to injury — and while Iñaki is expected to start at the Metropolitano, Nico is a serious doubt to play. However, Athletic boss Ernesto Valverde has nonetheless included the Spain winger in his squad for Wednesday.

“They’re both very good players and both are important to their team, Iñaki because of his experience and Nico because of his youth,” Simeone said. “I’m sure both will play despite Nico’s discomfort, I imagine both will be on the pitch.”

Athletic de Bilbao v Real Mallorca - LaLiga EA Sports Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Simeone faces crucial decisions in his 11, such as who to start as the left-sided wide center-back. Reinildo Mandava was rested Sunday at the Santiago Bernabéu — the site of his ACL tear last February — and offers more security than Mario Hermoso, Atlético’s best ball-playing defender. In addition, it remains to be seen whether center-back José María Giménez (grade I hamstring tear) will be ready to re-enter the lineup — the Uruguayan took light training Monday but not Tuesday.

Elsewhere on the pitch, Llorente could keep his place in the 11 ahead of Nahuel Molina, while Pablo Barrios is an option to displace Saúl Ñíguez in midfield. Finally, Antoine Griezmann needs a strike partner — will it be the red-hot Memphis Depay, or Álvaro Morata just back from a slight injury?

“Both teams come into this match with a lot of excitement, enthusiasm, and a desire to compete,” Simeone said. “It will be a really nice game.”

Date Feb. 7, 2024

Location Estadio Cívitas Metropolitano, Madrid

Kickoff time 9:30 p.m. CET, 8:30 p.m. GMT, 3:30 p.m. ET, 12:30 p.m. PT

Available TV/streaming ESPN+ (United States), TVE La 1 (Spain)