Last season Club Atlético de Madrid began their European campaign in Athens against Panathinaikos FC, recording their first victory in five visits to Greece to qualify for the UEFA Champions League group stage. It was the start of a journey that would take them all the way to the UEFA Europa League final – and glory against Fulham FC.
The holders are back on Greek soil for their opening game in UEFA Europa League Group B, with hosts Aris Thessaloniki FC yet to lose in 21 UEFA competition home fixtures, a run of 11 wins and ten draws stretching back to 1970/71.
Aris's European home record is not unblemished though – they lost to Juventus and Újpest FC in the non-UEFA affiliated Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in the late 1960s. Yet if they avoid defeat against Atlético in front of a 22,800 sell-out crowd at the Kleanthis Vikelidis Stadium, they will have gone 40 years unbeaten at home since Chelsea FC left with a 1-1 draw on 16 September 1970, date of their UEFA home debut.
That is a significant anniversary for the Thessaloniki club, though it is not the only reason Héctor Cúper's side are so excited about Atlético's arrival; Javito, one of a number of Spanish players at Aris, has his own. "I am really looking forward to facing Atlético because they are from my homeland," said the 26-year-old striker, whose goal for Aris at La Romareda eliminated Real Zaragoza from the UEFA Cup three years ago. "You get a real buzz when you score in big matches like this, but it's more important that the team do well, no matter who scores."
Aris were reminded they are not invulnerable at home when falling 1-0 to Panathinaikos on Saturday, yet coach Cúper hopes that result will not affect his team unduly. "I was disappointed, but satisfied with the players' performance and efforts," he said. "We have to forget that defeat as soon as possible and focus on a very difficult fixture. We won't let one negative result kill our spirit."
Spirit is hardly the main concern for the former RCD Mallorca, Valencia CF and FC Internazionale Milano boss. He has just 16 players available, three of them goalkeepers, with Juan Carlos Toja, Danijel Cesarec and Neto suspended, Toni Calvo missing for personal reasons, and Deividas Česnauskis succumbing to a groin injury on international duty with Lithuania.