The marquee matchup of this year’s Champions League Round of 16 is here. Inter and Atlético Madrid are set to square off in leg one Tuesday night in Milano, and who better to talk with to prepare than Into the Calderon‘s site boss and Marca US’ Digital Editor Jeremy Beren. Jeremy answered our questions on all things Atlético, from the highs and lows of the 2023/24 campaign to what type of game to expect come kickoff Tuesday. A big thanks to Jeremy for his time!

Q: What are the overall vibes like at Atlético coming into this one? 

A: The vibes around Atlético right now are…uncertain, especially as this tie begins away from home, where Atlético have particularly struggled this season. Atlético have lost six games in LaLiga this season — all six losses were away from the Cívitas Metropolitano. Diego Simeone has a good team at his disposal this season, and Los Colchoneros have been more prolific in front of goal this season than in any other season since Simeone returned to the club in 2011. However, the defense has frequently struggled to keep a clean sheet — it’s an older group that has been ravaged by injury and inconsistency this season.

Winning the Champions League has been a fixation for Atlético, especially as they have come so close to winning it twice before under Simeone. I think there is excitement and intrigue around this tie — and it’s a homecoming of sorts for El Cholo. I think Atleti will be up for it and give a good account of themselves, but grinding out a decent result in the first leg will be crucial for their progression chances.

Q: At least from an outside perspective, Atlético games seem to have a lot more goals (at both ends) than might usually be expected from a Diego Simeone team. How has El Cholo’s style changed and what are Atlético’s go-to tactics this season? 

A: Atlético certainly have been more open this season — although the certain absence of Álvaro Morata (knee injury) for the first leg could impact the team’s ability to finish chances. It’s been a long time since Atlético was a clean-sheet machine and one of the best defenses in Europe — this version of Atleti needs to have more possession and has used the ball better than previous iterations. Look for Simeone to deploy a 3-5-2 that has been his base formation since 2021, with three central defenders and two wing-backs that function more as wingers or additional wide midfielders instead of pure full-backs. Simeone is also unlikely to play with a pure holding midfielder — Koke, his captain, has filled in as a pivot for several seasons now, even though it is not his strongest position.

Q: Building off that, what are the Colchoneros’ strengths and weaknesses? Any players that could cause Inter big problems and vice versa?

A: Atlético’s biggest strength is in the quality of Antoine Griezmann, one of the very best players in Europe and a complete attacker who does just about everything well. Griezmann’s form has slipped a bit recently as he’s been playing heavy minutes all season, but he is still Simeone’s top creative threat between the lines and a player who has a notable — if not significant — defensive contribution. Inter and Serie A fans will probably remember Rodrigo de Paul, who has been Atlético’s best midfielder in recent months — he’s a daring passer and a high-level ball-carrier who finally appears comfortable in the Spanish capital. Simeone also has several impressive young players gaining momentum in the first team, including midfielder Pablo Barrios and left wing-backs Samuel Lino and Rodrigo Riquelme.

Atlético’s weaknesses are its defence and its lack of strong physical conditioning. These have been weaknesses for a few seasons now and have almost always come back to bite the team against high-level opposition in the Champions League. Atleti do not press particularly well and are themselves vulnerable to a high press — especially away from home, where playing from the back is much more difficult.

Q: How has the club fared in the transfer markets this season? What are its big needs in the future?

A: Atlético cracked open the chequebook in January to sign Belgian teenager Arthur Vermeeren, who signed from Royal Antwerp in a deal worth an initial €18 million. This is a big sum for Atlético — chief executive Miguel Ángel Gil Marín has been quite stingy over the past couple of years but he was convinced to sign a midfielder with a huge future ahead of him, although his potential role in this tie is unclear. The summer signing of César Azpilicueta was a shrewd move, particularly on a free transfer, but Azpi will likely miss both legs of this tie through injury. Two other summer signings, defenders Javi Galán and Çaglar Söyüncü, are out on loan after failing to impress Simeone — the club needs to turn its attention to central defence over the summer and acquire one or two high-level young players that El Cholo can mould and develop.

Q: And lastly, what’s your predicted starting XI, scoreline, and overall game flow for Leg One?

A: My predicted 11 is a 3-5-2 with Jan Oblak; José Giménez, Axel Witsel, Mario Hermoso; Nahuel Molina, Samuel Lino, Koke, Rodrigo de Paul, Marcos Llorente; Antoine Griezmann, Memphis Depay.

I’m going to stick out my neck and call this one a choppy 1-1 draw where Inter will have more possession — as well as better chances — but Atlético will find a way to nick a draw to set up a hotly-contested second leg next month.