History Lesson, Part II Borussia Dortmund-Atlético Madrid, two decades on – Into the Calderon

That season began with plenty of fanfare for both clubs. Under Serbian manager Radomir Antić — the only man to manage Atlético, Real Madrid and Barcelona — Atlético had won a Liga/Copa double the season before. Hoping to keep the titles coming, club president Jesús Gil spent big in the offseason. He brought in target forward Juan Esnáider from Real Madrid and immediately gave him the number nine shirt. Gil also recruited Slavia Prague defensive midfielder Radek Bejbl, a key cog in the Czech Republic’s surprise Euro 1996 finalists. Those two signings joined Spanish stalwarts Roberto and Kiko as well as Serbian Milinko Pantić, the creative number 10 who spearheaded the double-winning side with double digit goals (including the winning strike in the Copa del Rey) and numerous key passes and assists.

Despite the investment, Atlético were relatively unprepared to compete on two fronts in 1996/97. By the time they played their two matches in two weeks against Dortmund in October, Atleti had more or less fallen out of the title race. When they visited the Westfalenstadion on Oct. 30, they sat 10th in LaLiga. The Champions League had become their main competition.

Similarly to the current side, that Dortmund squad brimmed with young, under-the-radar talent, much of it homegrown. Captain and center-half Matthias Sammer won the Ballon d’Or in 1996 after a strong showing for the Euro-winning German side. Keeper Stefan Klos likely would have become a bigger name, but he could never beat out Oliver Kahn as Germany’s first-choice keeper. The strike partnership of Swiss Stéphane Chapuisat and German Karl-Heinz Reidle tormented opposing defenses. Playmakers Paulo Sousa and Andreas Möller and defender Júlio César had all joined Dortmund from Juventus after they beat BVB in the ‘93 UEFA Cup final.

Mirroring 2018, Dortmund and Atlético were clearly the top two in a group that also featured Polish side Widzew Łódź and Romanian giants Steaua București. Atleti dominated much of the first meeting at the Calderón on Oct. 16 as they created the better chances and attacked with gusto. The colchoneros nearly scored on the stroke of halftime, but Klos made a fine reaction save to keep things level.

Late in the match, Esnáider — the big summer striker signing — blew a tap-in (some things never change). Cholo Simeone had a chance to tie the match near the death. He found himself with a free header off a corner kick, a chance Diego Godín or Comandante Giménez would’ve buried. But it wasn’t to be, and Cholo sent his header over the bar and into orbit. Klos made several key second-half saves to see out the result, and BVB left the banks of the Manzanares with a 1-0 win.

Atlético equalized in the 37th minute and channeled their next league-winning side when Roberto’s downward header from a corner helped the ball trickle over the line. Minutes later, Pantić produced a moment of magic — a divine free kick from an impossible angle that bent just out of Klos’ reach. The ball kissed the far post and rolled slowly into the back of the net.

While both clubs have changed significantly in the years since those mid-nineties showdowns, certain elements remain the same. Both clubs have significant aspirations on two fronts — their respective leagues and the Champions League. Cholo Simeone is still involved. Dortmund still feature plenty of young talent, although they sign players on a more global scale in 2018 and do not currently feature a Ballon d’Or candidate. Atlético still rely on a spectacular Eastern European (Jan Oblak in Pantić’s place) and a cadre of Spanish stars (Koke, Saúl, Rodri as opposed to Kiko and Roberto). And in terms of playing style, Antoine Griezmann likely plays the Pantić role in the current side.