Arsenal v Atletico Madrid: End of an era for Gunners' Europa League opponents

Atletico Madrid
Atletico's backline - including Juanfran - are ageing, stars like Antoine Griezmann are wanted by other clubs

The focus might be firmly and fairly fixed on outgoing Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, but Atletico Madrid are also approaching the end of an era as they head into Thursday's Europa League semi-final first-leg trip to Emirates Stadium.

The Spanish side are facing a summer of change, with iconic forward Fernando Torres definitely leaving and the futures of key men, forward Antoine Griezmann and goalkeeper Jan Oblak, in considerable doubt.

Furthermore, a number of the players who have been fundamental fixtures in Diego Simeone's side for the last few years are approaching the end of their careers, and this Europa League campaign could be the last chance for old favourites like skipper Gabi, 34, right-back Juanfran, 33, central defender Diego Godin, 33, and currently injured left-back Filipe Luis, 32, to add to their trophy haul.

Atletico's ability to compete on an even footing with Barcelona and Real Madrid over the last few years has been admirable, and Simeone's men are on track to hold off city rivals Real and claim a second-place finish in La Liga this season.

But Los Rojiblancos have not won any silverware since the Spanish Super Cup in August 2014, and the ultra-competitive Simeone - whose future at the club currently seems secure despite regular bouts of speculation - is desperate for his troops to end a frustrating sequence of near-misses by lifting the Europa League trophy.

So watch out Arsene… Atletico are determined to spoil your leaving party.

The masters of defence

Jan Oblak
Jan Oblak has conceded 23 goals in 43 games this season, keeping 26 clean sheets

Arsenal's biggest challenge will be finding the back of the net, because Atletico's challenge is founded - as it has been throughout the Simeone era, which began in 2011 - on a magnificent defensive record.

After Sunday's goalless draw with Real Betis, they have now kept a remarkable 11 consecutive clean sheets at home, with Girona forward Portu the last visiting player to score at the gleaming new Estadio Wanda Metropolitano more than three months ago.

That sequence includes victories in previous Europa League knockout ties against FC Copenhagen (1-0), Lokomotiv Moscow (3-0) and Sporting Lisbon (2-0).

However, Atletico haven't been anywhere near as watertight away from home, failing to keep a clean sheet in their last eight away games and losing three of the last four. But they still boast the best defensive record in La Liga with just 18 goals conceded in 34 games.

So it's clear that Arsenal need to establish a solid advantage from the first leg, but it won't be easy for Wenger's men to find their way past incredibly consistent goalkeeper Oblak, who did nothing to ease speculation over his future by speaking to the media after Sunday's draw with Betis and stating he doesn't know where he'll be playing next season.

The Slovenia international has been heavily linked with a summer move to Paris St-Germain, who are supposedly not put off by his 100m euros (£87m) buyout clause, with Arsenal and Liverpool also reportedly interested in making Oblak the most expensive goalkeeper in the world.

Atletico midfielder Koke has urged his club to give the 25-year-old shot-stopper a "blank cheque" to keep him, but Oblak's lack of public commitment to his future has left many fans resigned to the prospect of losing a player who been a pillar of strength since signing from Benfica in 2014.

In front of Oblak, the back four is marshalled by the no-nonsense 'Row Z'-style defending of the fearless Godin, with rising star Lucas Hernandez - brother of Real Madrid defender Theo - deputising for (and perhaps even displacing) injured Luis at left-back, while dynamic Croatia international Sime Vrsaljko competes with Juanfran for the right-back slot.

So the names might be mostly different from the famous Atletico defences of recent years, but thanks to Simeone's meticulous drilling they are still incredibly difficult to score against. And just to make things even harder, the Argentine boss has said he's considering using an extra centre-back and employing a five-man defence against Arsenal on Thursday.

Griezmann's last shot at glory?

Antoine Griezmann
Antoine Griezmann has scored 161 goals for Real Sociedad and Atletico Madrid - but his only trophies are the Segunda Division and Spanish Super Cup

For all the goalscoring exploits of Antoine Griezmann - undoubtedly Atletico's biggest star - over the last few years, the versatile forward has one massive gap on his CV: he has never won a major trophy.

The 27-year-old Frenchman was part of Real Sociedad's second-tier promotion-winning team in 2010, and Atletico won the Spanish Super Cup against Real Madrid just after he joined in the summer of 2014, but defeats in the Champions League final and European Championship final in 2016 left him waiting for more significant silverware.

Now, it appears, Griezmann's patience has run out and he's decided to boost his chances of taking titles by joining Barcelona, who are very confident of securing his signature by paying his 100m euros (£87m) buyout clause in the summer - even though Simeone has claimed he has not given up hope of persuading him to stay.

Griezmann was close to joining Manchester United for a similar fee last year, but he eventually decided to stick with Atletico as a sign of respect after the club were prevented from recruiting a replacement by a Fifa transfer ban.

Earlier in the season it looked like he was regretting his decision to stay after making a slow start, but he has regained top form since the January arrival of Diego Costa, with the former Chelsea man's muscular approach helping to create space (and tire out opposition defenders) for Griezmann's benefit.

However, that almost certainly won't be the case on Thursday because Costa is struggling to recover from a hamstring injury suffered in the quarter-final against Portuguese side Sporting, although Simeone is confident the powerful forward will be back in time for the second leg.

Fond farewell for Torres?

Fernando Torres
Fernando Torres scored his 100th La Liga goal against Levante earlier this month, days after his summer exit was confirmed

The expected absence of Costa makes it more likely that Arsenal fans will see a final outing on English soil for ex-Liverpool and Chelsea striker Fernando Torres, who will make an emotional departure from his boyhood club at the end of the season.

Torres is expected to move to the United States or China after Simeone opted not to renew his contract, a decision which the 34-year-old was unhappy with but has reluctantly accepted after receiving reduced playing time this season.

Atletico fans hold an enormous amount of affection for 'El Nino', who first joined the club at the age of 11 and later became a hugely popular captain before embarking upon his seven-year sojourn in England.

In truth, though, Torres has generally been well past his best since he returned to Atletico following a brief spell with AC Milan in January 2015, and he is very unlikely to start on Thursday.

Instead, Griezmann is likely to be partnered by fellow Frenchman Kevin Gameiro, who has never consistently lived up to expectations since arriving from Sevilla for 32m euros (£27m) in the summer of 2016 but who can be a devastating player on the counter-attack thanks to his searing pace.

Another option for the starting line-up is Angel Correa, a skilful player and an outside candidate for Argentina's World Cup squad but Atletico fans would love nothing more than Torres enjoying a last moment of glory by coming off the bench to send his team on their way to a European final.

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