When the whistle sounded on Atletico Madrid’s 1-0 home win over Malaga on Saturday, a victory that keeps them well in the hunt for the Liga title, the fans packed into the stands at the Vicente Calderon began to turn their thoughts to their team’s next assignment, rolling out a banner that read: “#winforyourelders on Wednesday”.
The elders in question are the Atletico Madrid players who ran out for the club in its one and only previous European tie against Bayern Munich, which took place fully 42 years ago but remains very fresh in the memories of the Rojiblanco faithful.
That match was the 1974 European Cup final, the first time both sides had reached the continental showpiece, and it sticks in the mind of older Atleti supporters because they saw it first hand. As for their younger brethren, they have heard the story of how that game unfolded many, many times.
Los Colchoneros took a 1-0 lead with six minutes of extra time remaining thanks to a fine goal from the indefatigable Luis Aragones, but with the trophy almost in their grasp, a long-range effort from Georg Schwarzenbeck in the dying seconds brought them crashing down to earth.
“It was like when you have a dream. You wake up and you realise none of it was real.” The words belong to Javier Jabo Irureta, who was on the pitch that fateful night at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels. The 68-year-old former coach and player is one of the “elders” on behalf of whom Atleti fans are pleading for vengeance when the two sides come face to face again in the first-leg of their UEFA Champions League semi-final on Wednesday.
“Revenge is more of a fans’ thing really,” Irureta told FIFA.com, a smile breaking out on his face. “A lot of people have asked me about the wound, and like all wounds, they eventually heal. If Atletico end up being crowned champions of Europe, then it’ll be healed completely, though I don’t really care who they beat on the way.”
Irureta spoke with the calmness that comes with years of experience and a lifetime devoted to the game, initially as an artful midfielder who made his mark with Atleti and Athletic Bilbao, and latterly in a lengthy coaching career in which he won the Spanish league title and the Copa del Rey with Deportivo La Coruna, whom he also guided to the semi-finals of the Champions League.
“That final is probably the lowest point of my career,” he acknowledged, and not just because of Schwarzenbeck’s late equaliser. Back in those days replays were held rather than penalty shootouts, and when the return took place 48 hours later, the suspended Irureta looked on helplessly from the sidelines, having been booked in the first encounter.
If Atletico end up being crowned champions of Europe, then the wound will be healed completely.
“There’s not much you can say about the other game,” he said. “Bayern were the better side because they were younger than us and recovered better from the first match, both physically and mentally. They were heading for defeat, and that last-minute goal gave them a new lease of life,” he added, casting his mind back to his side’s 4-0 defeat in the replay.
That victorious Bayern side provided the backbone of the Germany team that went on to win the FIFA World Cup™ a few weeks later, setting a precedent followed by the team currently coached by Pep Guardiola, which contains five of the players who lifted the world title at Brazil 2014.
Led by Franz Beckenbauer, Bayern’s class of '74 dashed the dreams of an Aragones-inspired Atletico side that was regarded as the best in the club’s history, at least until the arrival of Diego Simeone in the dugout in 2011. “He’s a great motivator, and he has a lot of things in common with Luis,” said Irureta, voicing his praise for the Argentinian, who has steered Los Colchoneros to five trophies to date and oversaw their return to the Champions League final in 2014, when they lost out to Real Madrid.
The tactical battle
It is for those reasons that Irureta, who is also a self-confessed admirer of Guardiola, predicted a very evenly balanced semi-final between two very different sides: “Their styles of play are totally opposite to each other. Bayern will see a lot more of the ball, but that’s not going to bother Atletico. They’re used to that, and they’ll try to make the most of the space Bayern leave behind them.
“Cholo (Simeone) will be looking for his team to press at times and to drop back on other occasions and keep it very tight. Bayern and Barça have things in common, such as the amount of possession they enjoy and their static attacks, and I’m expecting Atleti to approach the game in the same way as they did against Barcelona, which worked out well for them.”
Highlighting what he believes will be the keys to the game, Irureta added: “I’m a bit worried that (Diego) Godin is out. He’s the leader of the defence, and the fact he’s not there gives them something of an advantage, as (Thomas) Muller and (Robert) Lewandowski are both very strong in the air, skilful in the box and can win games on their own. I also think the first leg will be important. I think Atleti have to score and I think they’ll push hard for it.” Asked to make a prediction, he said with a smile: “Let’s see if they can get a 1-0 win at least.”
Now retired from the front line, Jabo said he was unsure if he would go to the stadium or watch the game on TV. Either way, he will be praying hard for the dream to finally come true.