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Sep 172013

After their 6-1 thrashing of Galatasaray on Tuesday, Real Madrid definitely look like UEFA Champions League contenders.

But what about their crosstown rivals?

Last year we saw Borussia Dortmund come from (relative) obscurity to make a run all the way to the final, where they eventually fell to Bayern Munich. Prior to that we only saw five teams compete in the five previous finals. In other words, Dortmund bucked a major trend last season.

Atletico Madrid can duplicate that bit of “magic” if you will. There are several factors in play that set them up nicely for a potential run to the semifinals where just a few lucky breaks are all that’s needed to reach the final match of the most grueling tournament on the planet

Coming Back To The Pack

Those five teams that made up the five Champions League finals prior to Dortmund-Bayern last year were Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea, Inter, and Bayern.

Inter have fallen off the map and are not in this year’s edition.

Barcelona are off to a good start in La Liga, but have a lot of question marks surrounding their defense and their ability to play from behind. You can trace those concerns all the way back to their knockout round fixture with Paris-Saint Germain last season and they don’t appear to have been addressed over the summer.

Manchester United’s mental toughness will be tested as they adjust to life in the spotlight without the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson at the helm. They were left with a bitter taste in their mouth after being knocked out by Real Madrid last year thanks in part to a controversial red card. They’ve only added Marouane Fellaini over the summer while the rest of their core of veterans is one year older and one year slower.

Chelsea’s biggest offseason addition was bringing back Jose Mourinho as manager. The Special One has a history of success in the Champions League and he’s brought in Brazilian midfielder Willian along with Samuel Eto’o. They were knocked out of a tough group last year and will be looking for revenge, but they haven’t gotten off to the best start in their domestic league.

Bayern Munich look primed and ready to get back to the final this year, especially after their impressive 3-0 victory over CSKA Moscow on Tuesday. Their biggest question mark is how they’ll adapt to new manager Pep Guardiola, but that doesn’t appear to be an issue so far.

Then there’s teams like Juventus (who drew 1-1 with FC Copenhagen on Tuesday), Paris-Saint Germain (struggling out of the gate in Ligue 1), and Dortmund (who don’t seem to have slowed down too much, but can they duplicate their effort?) who all look like contenders on paper, but haven’t proven themselves consistent Champions League title contenders in recent history.

David Villa’s New Position

Barcelona often tried to use David Villa as an out-and-out striker or a “false 9″ in their preferred 4-3-3. Now that he’s at Madrid, he’s not a lone, central forward but rather an unorthodox winger. He gets out wide and lets Diego Costa run the channels down the middle and so far it appears to have rejuvenated him. Villa has two goals and one assist in Atletico’s first four La Liga matches this season. If he can stay healthy (a BIG if) and continue his good form, it will go a long way in helping Atletico advance through the tournament.

Diego Costa’s New Responsibility

With Radamel Falcao off in Monaco, the scoring burden has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the volatile Diego Costa. Perhaps the only player as polarizing as Luis Suarez, Costa has a history of losing his cool in big moments and many have (rightly) questioned his mental toughness.

But the departure of Falcao seems to have inspired him to let his play do the talking. He has four goals and an assist in Atletico’s first four matches this season and shows no signs of slowing down.

Underdog Mentality

Atletico boss Diego Simeone isn’t exactly talking up his team’s chances ahead of their group play opener at home against Zenit Saint Petersburg on Wednesday.

“(Zenit) have been in the competition much more than us, and are an important team, with big name players and financial power. We are growing, with humility and work, and collective sense that we always have.”

He might be giving the Russian side a bit too much credit considering Zenit have never advanced far into the knockout round, but he seems to trying to instill that “underdog” mentality in his side and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Dortmund played like underdogs last season and rode that momentum harder and harder as the tournament went on. It can be an incredibly powerful motivator, especially with less experienced squad like Atletico’s.

Thibaut Courtois

The Belgian goalkeeper is quietly competing with Liverpool’s Simon Mignolet for the No.1 spot with Belgium’s national when the World Cup roles around in June. At just 21, he is already raising a lot of eyebrows and sometimes (as hockey shows us) all you need a hot player between the sticks.

“Collective Sense”

Though they lack Champions League experience, this Atletico side has a lot of experience playing with each other. They are not a team that has shuffled up their roster in the past, despite repeated attempts to dethrone Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga. The defense added Dutch international Toby Alderweireld this summer, but return a core of solid veterans like Luis Felipe, Francisco Juanfran, Miranda, and Diego Godin who does have some Champions League experience. The midfield is comprised of vastly underrated players like Raul Garcia and Arda Turan not to mention Atletico mainstays Tiago, Gabi, and Koke.

Since 2009-10, when they were last in the Champions League, this same group has won the Europa League twice as well as one European Supercup and one Copa Del Rey.

Obviously all of this can go out the window if they don’t manage to escape what is in fact a pretty tough group of Zenit, FC Porto, and minnows Austria Viena. Even if they get out of the group, a tough draw in the knockout rounds can do them in just as quickly and easily. But they do get Zenit at home on Wednesday and you can bet the Vicente Calderon Stadium will be rocking. If they can ride the home crowd to three points against the toughest team in their group, it will go a long way towards setting them up to advance. After that all it takes is one little spark to get through the knockout rounds.

If you’re looking for a plucky upstart like last year’s Dortmund team to not only make some noise but potentially reach the final, look no further than Los Rojiblancos.


Adam Uthe

VP of Content Development for GFT and proud supporter of Columbus Crew (MLS) and Liverpool FC (EPL). @AUtheGFT

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