Matchday 1 critical to Atletico Madrid's ultimate goal of UCL glory
After what can at best be described as a bore-draw away to Valencia, Atletico Madrid travel to Rome hoping to give their fans a bit more to cheer about -- granted, that will not be too difficult.
This, for Los Rojiblancos, is the holy grail. The trophy the club, the fans, the players and -- above all -- the coach craves more than anything. Diego Simeone has taken Atletico Madrid from mid-table also-rans to Europe's top table. Now is the time for the club to take the last remaining step forward in their quest for glory and go all the way in the Champion League.
Only one team -- Real Madrid -- has knocked Atleti out of Europe in the past four seasons and they have been heartbreakingly close in the two finals they have reached. Simeone, however, will never let Atleti mope around or wallow in self-pity. He is always looking forwards. "It's such a sense of pride to get to the finals and to win it would be the ultimate," Simeone said.
"We lost one in the last minute and then another on penalties against Madrid. We've got experience and we've attained some big results in the Champions League. If we carry on as we are doing, getting closer, sooner or later we'll win it."
They were bullish words from the coach, but he has a point. Atleti are second in the UEFA rankings, have built up a wealth of experience in this competition -- knocking out the likes of group opponents Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Barcelona (amongst others) over the past four seasons.
They are as well-placed as any side to dethrone their city rivals as Europe's kings and Simeone knows what it takes to get the job done in the sometimes attritional group stage. It will also be a special night for the Argentine, who spent four years at Roma's neighbours Lazio -- although suffice to say he will probably not expect the warmest of welcomes from the home crowd.
Yet the match is also special because it is perhaps Los Colchoneros' most important game of the group, even at this very early stage.
Why? Well, nobody wants to be playing catch up after the first round of games, less any side in this group given the strength of the top three seeded sides and the unknown quantity of Qarabag. The way the fixtures have panned out is intriguing: Atleti could potentially have qualification sewn up before October is out. Likewise, they could be staring down a barrel of an early exit. It is on a knife-edge.
A victory away to Roma would leave the Italians lagging from the off and with Atleti's back-to-back games against Qarabag in matches three and four you would fancy them to pull away from Eusebio Di Francesco's side should they get off to a flyer.
Problem is, any slip up away to Roma would mean that Chelsea's visit on Matchday 2 would take on even more significance. Barring a disaster, the English champions will get off to a winning start against the Azeri debutants and come to Madrid with their hosts desperately needing all three points. Under normal circumstances you would back Atletico to beat anyone at home in Europe, however with the club yet to even make their league debut in their new Wanda Metropolitano stadium, you never know how the transition might go.
Things are that finely poised in what is one of this season's tougher groups, however with Antoine Griezmann -- suspended for the last two league games -- back to lead the line and the likes of Saul Niguez and Yannick Carrasco often saving their best performances for the European stage, Atletico have nothing to fear. They are the side to beat in this group, even if Chelsea won their league last year.
This time last campaign Atletico squeaked out a narrow 1-0 win away at PSV -- Saul with a wonderful volley -- and while it was not pretty, it got Los Rojiblancos off to the perfect start. They went on to top a group containing Bayern and shipped just two goals along the way. A win in Rome will go a long way to having a similar catalyst effect for them this time round, too.
Joseph Walker covers Atletico Madrid for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @Joe_in_espana.