• Striker struggles in training on eve of Nou Camp first leg
• Clubs have drawn in three meetings this season
Spain has a new clásico and so does Europe. The train pulled out of Atocha station at 10.30am on Monday and headed north-east out of the capital. On board were the league leaders, travelling to Camp Nou to face their closest rivals for the Spanish title and their opponents for a place in the Champions League semi-finals. Atlético Madrid, likened to a kind of footballing Robin Hood by the midfielder Tiago, stand before their greatest moment and Barcelona stand before them. "This game will be the hardest of them all," said their manager, Diego Simeone.
It will be harder still if Diego Costa's departure from the training pitch is anything other than a false alarm, or perhaps a tactic. Atlético's top scorer, with 25 league goals and a further seven in five Champions League games, was withdrawn at the end of the 2-1 win at Athletic Bilbao on Saturday night, holding his groin, and did not train on Sunday. He was only on the Camp Nou pitch for around five minutes on Monday night.
At the weekend, Simeone had described Costa as "contagious". Here he insisted the striker is as important for Atlético as Lionel Messi is for Barcelona. His absence would be a gigantic blow. Costa appeared to reach for the top of his right thigh and look towards the club doctor. After the session, Simeone admitted that he had not seen the striker's reaction but said that club doctors would monitor the situation and that a decision would be made with medical staff, but it looked "difficult" for Costa to play. "If Costa is fit, he'll play; if not, he won't," Simeone said. "I spoke to the doctor. They are going to evaluate Diego Costa tonight and tomorrow. We have to talk to them about it."
Atlético and Barcelona have faced each other three times this season. Two more games in eight days will be followed in May by a league match on the final day of the season that, with the teams separated by a single point, could be the title decider. There has been nothing to separate them. After their most recent meeting in the league at the Vicente Calderón, a journalist noted: "Three games and they haven't been able to beat you." Simeone smiled: "Well, we haven't been able to beat them either."
That is no surprise; that Barcelona have not won is. Atlético have broken up the old duopoly. Despite a budget barely a quarter the size of those of Real or Barça, Atlético have competed fiercely. They lost August's Super Cup to Barcelona on away goals after two draws, 1-1 and 0-0. In the league it finished 0-0 and it is Atlético who are top. They also hammered Milan in the Champions League – the first time they had won a European Cup knockout tie since 1977. The last time they reached a quarter-final was in 1997, straight out of the group. Simeone was playing that night against Ajax.
"Of all the games against Barcelona tomorrow will be the hardest, not least because we're at the Camp Nou," Simeone said. "In August, Barcelona weren't in the form they're in now. And at the Calderón in the league, Messi was coming back from injury. They are at their best now and, whatever they say, I am sure they will try to settle the tie in the first game. But we will compete. Both teams will compete, but with very different identities. Their game is built around the ball; ours is built around the space."
Atlético have certainly competed. Theri captain Gabi describes them as a "club that have always fought against adversity", rooted in "humility, sacrifice and solidarity", "the team of the workers". Tiago compared them to Robin Hood, and Diego "El Cholo" Simeone's "game by game" discourse, his eulogy of effort and team spirit, has turned cliche into a philosophy. What, he was asked here, is Cholismo? "You'd have to ask the people who called it that," he protested. "But these are great players, great professionals who are really committed."
Atlético always defined themselves in opposition and although the fatalism that went with it has been washed away, there is still a conscious earthiness to their ideals, a sense of fighting against the establishment, against power. There has been something about their success that has been everyone's success, welcomed as a challenge to the dominance of the big two. The Spanish columnist Enric González described Spanish football as "a battle between two millionaires to see who could waste their money in the least idiotic way". No more.
"I have only played in the quarter-finals twice," said the former Chelsea and Lyon midfielder Tiago, now at Atlético. "Barcelona have played six semi-finals in a row and won two finals." But he added: "We're comfortable." In truth, this is not the draw that Atlético wanted. Privately they believe that 180 minutes resisting may be too long even for the ultimate resisters. Yet this is a role that they have embraced and one that has served them. Others have embraced them for it.
"It's very easy for people to identify with us," Tiago said. "Society is living very difficult times and we're trying to fight in the league and the Champions League against teams with huge budgets and big resources. That's where the similarity with Robin Hood comes."