MADRID — It was after a victory over Chelsea three years ago that Atletico Madrid began to assert itself as a contender in European soccer.
The Spanish club won over two legs in the 2014 Champions League semifinals to get its first shot at the European title in nearly 40 years. Atletico went on to reach another final in 2016, and to the semifinals last season.
Wednesday’s group match in Madrid will be the first between the teams since Atletico beat Chelsea — the 2012 Champions League champion — with a 3-1 win in England to secure a spot in the final against Real Madrid. Atletico and Chelsea had drawn 0-0 in the first leg at the Vicente Calderon Stadium.
"Atletico Madrid is a really good team, with great experience in this competition," Chelsea coach Antonio Conte said. "In the last few years they always played a great Champions League. To reach the final twice is not simple, is not for all the teams. It means that you are strong, that you are able to have a good tournament."
Chelsea right back Cesar Azpilicueta said Atletico has become a dangerous opponent thanks to its consistency.
"It’s a team that has been playing with the same players and the same coach for a long time," the Spanish defender said. "It has been constantly improving and progressing and it will definitely be one of the candidates for the Champions League title this time."
There were some familiar faces in that matchup at Stamford Bridge in 2014.
Striker Fernando Torres is now with Atletico but he played for Chelsea at the time, scoring the English club’s lone goal in that home loss. One of Atletico’s goals was scored by Diego Costa, who later played for Chelsea before recently reaching a deal to return to the Spanish club.
Atletico’s goalkeeper was Thibaut Courtois, who now is defending Chelsea’s goal. Atletico left back Filipe Luis played for Chelsea in 2014-15, and current Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata played in Atletico’s youth squads before eventually becoming a regular with city rival Real Madrid.
"This Chelsea team is very different from the team that we faced in 2014," Atletico coach Diego Simeone said. "I love the kind of game it plays, with intensity, with balance throughout the entire team. It works well collectively to defend and to know what it needs to do on the field. That’s why it won the Premier League like it did last season. It’s a very tough opponent."
Atletico had also beaten Chelsea 4-1 in the 2012 European Super Cup final, behind a first-half hat trick by Radamel Falcao. The teams’ other matches were in the group stage of the Champions League in 2009, with Chelsea winning 4-0 at home and drawing 2-2 in Madrid.
The Spanish club has never lost at home against English clubs, and it’s looking to carry its impressive overall home record in European competitions into the new Wanda Metropolitano Stadium.
Atletico will be making its European debut at the Metropolitano, where it has won its first two Spanish league matches without conceding any goals.
Atletico was unbeaten in its last 11 games at the Calderon in the Champions League, and it lost only one of its 23 home games in European competitions under Simeone, considered the main responsible for turning the club into a European contender.
The Calderon was beloved by Atletico fans because it produced one of the greatest atmospheres in soccer, and the 68,000-capacity Metropolitano has already shown that it can also be a factor helping keep Atletico tough to beat at home.
Simeone last week said the Metropolitano "has the feel of a Roman circus."
"It’s never easy to play against Atletico Madrid, be it at the Calderon or here," Conte said.
Atletico opened Group C with a 0-0 draw at Roma, while Chelsea routed Qarabag 6-0 at home. Roma faces Qarabag in Azerbaijan on Wednesday.