Overwhelmed by one of the continent's in-form teams on matchday three, FK Austria Wien return to face Diego Simeone's section leaders Club Atlético de Madrid on Wednesday week looking to avenge a 3-0 loss when the sides met in the Austrian capital.
That result left the Violets bottom of UEFA Champions League Group G, where they are still seeking their first win and a first goal in this season's tournament proper. Coach Nenad Bjelica will serve a touchline ban in Madrid but is hoping the experience he gained in Spain as a player can nevertheless aid his side's cause.
"In seven years in Spain I learned most of my footballing knowledge," the former Croatia international explained of his time at Albacete Balompié, Real Betis Balompié and UD Las Palmas. "I picked up how to play in every footballing system and formation and what it means to play as a team. I learned how to behave and how to do things like correspond with the media, everything I need today in my coaching job."
Bjelica arrived in Spain for a trial at Atlético in 1993 yet despite impressing at Los Rojiblancos, the midfielder was overlooked by the club, a decision that baffled the ex-NK Osijek star. "I was at Atlético for several weeks, played a few matches for the reserve squad and even scored three goals in one game," the 42-year-old recalled. "I still don't know why I didn't sign for them. I remember they already had three very strong foreign players in Paulo Futre, Bernd Schuster and Luis García, but I still expected to sign a contract."
Undeterred, Bjelica moved on to Albacete, though his links with the Colchoneros would resurface some years later. "I had some great experiences at Albacete after they saw one of my trial matches with Atlético," he said. "In fact, when I was leaving the club in 1996, one of my options was to move to Atlético who were interested in me that time but I received a better offer from Betis and so I ended up moving south to Seville instead."
Remembering current Atlético coach Diego Simeone – a former Liga and Copa del Rey double winning midfielder at the club – as an "aggressive" and "energetic" player during their four on-field meetings in the 1990s, Bjelica explained that the admiration he feels towards his counterpart has grown considerably over the years.
"We were both midfielders so we came into close contact on the pitch," he explained. "We never talked much but you could tell that he was a great player, just as he is a great coach today. I've already said this a few times, but I really think Simeone is the best coach in the world at the moment; he is winning trophies and knows how to prepare his team for every situation."
Looking ahead, the Austria tactician realises the extent of the task facing the Bundesliga side as they look to revive their European hopes in what will be a daunting atmosphere at the Vicente Calderón. "It won't be easy for us there as Atlético have an excellent team and a top coach," Bjelica said. "I will be glad to return to Madrid – especially as Atlético were involved in a good part of my career. As long as we have a chance, we will be hopeful we can do something good over there."
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