- Associated Press - Thursday, April 14, 2016

MADRID (AP) - If the Champions League draw on Friday takes Bayern Munich and Manchester City to Madrid, they will certainly be hoping it’s to face Atletico rather than 10-time European champion Real Madrid.

But the road to the final could be just as stressful through Vicente Calderon Stadium as it would be through Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.

In the semifinals for the second time in three seasons, Atletico is trying to establish itself as a perennial contender in Europe, and its recent success against top teams has transformed Diego Simeone’s squad into a dangerous opponent.

Even more so at the Vicente Calderon, where it has lost only twice in 29 games in European competitions, and lost only once in 15 Spanish league games this season.

“There is a virtue in this team, with the great work of the four years or so that we have been together,” Simeone said. “I’m happy for these players. I’m not just thinking about reaching the semifinals, it’s more important than that. There are fewer values in society all the time, but we are a group of honest workers who can win or lose. We make ourselves strong with the tools we have.”

Despite not having the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, Atletico has been able to thrive in Spain and in Europe thanks to a team first attitude instilled by Simeone, whose squads have been known for their tough defending and high intensity.

That’s how it eliminated the titleholders on Wednesday, outrunning Barcelona and containing Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar to earn a 2-0 win that erased the 2-1 first-leg loss at the Camp Nou.

“I’m so proud of the team,” said striker Antoine Griezmann, who scored both Atletico goals. “We were up against one of the best teams in the world. We went face-to-face with them and we are into the semifinals, among the four best sides in Europe.”

Atletico first started making headlines outside of Spain when it won the Europa League and the Super Cup in 2010 and 2012 respectively.

But it was in 2014 season that it broke through as a top contender. In addition to winning the Spanish league title for the first time in almost two decades, it reached the Champions League final by eliminating powerhouses such as AC Milan, Barcelona, and Chelsea. It eventually lost the final to Real Madrid in a game it was winning until second-half injury time.

Atletico is fighting for the Spanish league title again this year, trailing Barcelona by three points with six rounds to go. One of its 23 league victories came at the Bernabeu against Real Madrid, the city’s much richer and traditional club.

Real Madrid has more history, and it also has more money to sign high-profile players such as Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and Gareth Bale.

Ronaldo bagged all the goals in the 3-0 win over Wolfsburg on Tuesday to lead the team to the semifinals for the sixth straight time. He has 16 goals in 10 games in this Champions League, and is the tournament’s all-time leading scorer with 93 goals.

Madrid also has the Bernabeu as a weapon. The club won 13 of its last 14 games at the stadium with an average of nearly five goals per game. It won all five Champions League matches at the venue this season, outscoring opponents 18-0.

“We can do great things at the Bernabeu,” Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said.

Real Madrid is the most successful club in Europe with 10 Champions League titles, five more than Bayern Munich. Atletico and Man City have never won the competition. City reached the quarterfinals for the first time this season, and Atletico’s only other appearance in the final was in 1974, when the tournament was still called the European Cup.

“It won’t be easy no matter what,” Simeone said. “Manchester City is extremely powerful, with great players. Madrid and Bayern have their history. They are all great teams. To be among the best four teams in Europe these last years is a big step for Atletico.”


Tales Azzoni on Twitter: https://twitter.com/tazzoni

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