Football: Juninho leads the Madrid revolutionaries

Atletico Madrid, who entertain Leicester in the Uefa Cup tonight, have always played in the shadow cast by their internationally famous neighbours Real Madrid. However, the team are hoping that the acquisition of Juninho from Middlesbrough will prove the catalyst for a change. Phil Shaw reports from Madrid
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Juninho's adoring public in Middlesbrough would have a surprise if they saw the stage for which he forsook the English game. One of the most striking things about the Vicente Calderon Stadium, where Atletico Madrid's pounds 11m man renews hostilities with Leicester City tonight, is how similar its setting is to the Riverside Stadium.

Atletico's home stands in the old industrial quarter of the Spanish capital, even closer to the murky waters of the Manzanares than Boro are to the Tees. And instead of the ICI plant which dominates the skyline in his previous habitat, Juninho now passes a massive gasworks as he drives to the ground.

Ah yes, driving. The roads which service the Riverside scarcely compare with the six-lane Madrid ring road that roars directly beneath the Vicente Calderon's main stand, parallel to the touchline, around the clock. When the lorries, cars and coaches are moving thick and fast, it is said that Juninho's new constituency in the upper tier can feel the floor gently vibrating.

Despite this unique feature, the Leicester fans queuing for tickets yesterday would have recognised it as a fairly typical inner-city stadium, albeit one with 57,000 seats. The shock, at least with regard to Juninho, is that the diminutive Brazilian was so clearly born to grace the game's great arenas: Maracana, San Siro, Nou Camp, Old Trafford, et al.

At the risk of offending Atletico's notoriously volatile president and owner, Jesus Gil, even their most ardent followers would be pushed to justify the inclusion of this venue on such a list.

Yet the very presence of El Nino, "The Little One", is proof of Gil's 10-year crusade, nay obsession, to make Atletico one of Europe's great clubs. Likewise a summer outlay of pounds 38m which also secured Christian Vieri for pounds 12.5m, plus the much vaunted Jordi Lardin from Espanyol, and three others.

Atletico have occasionally flirted with the status enjoyed by Milan, Ajax and company. In 1962 they became the second-ever holders of the Cup- Winners' Cup, having disposed of Leicester, by strange coincidence, in the second round. Twelve years on there was a Champions' Cup final, where they were well beaten by Bayern Munich. But their image has always suffered by a very parochial comparison.

Real Madrid, with all their European Cups, glamour and popularity, give a fresh twist to the topical notion of neighbours from hell. Whatever Atletico achieve under Gil and his estimable coach, the former Luton player Raddy Antic, they appear destined to live with the knowledge that Real will always be the bigger noise.

The contrast between the clubs' grounds reveals much about their respective identities and place in the national and international hierarchy. Real's Bernabeu Stadium lies on a salubrious thoroughfare called the Castellana, and does not look out of place among the museums, mansions, trees, lawns and monuments.

The relationship between Real and Atletico can be likened to that of the Manchester clubs, Real's high profile fostering a contempt bordering on paranoia among Atletico's fans. They claim, for instance, that the true Madrilenos do not support Real. Derby games take on a meaning which transcends local enmity. "If we beat them," Gil claimed before one, "there'll be a nationwide orgasm."

Atletico, though, have tended to beat Real more often than City defeat United (not difficult) and while Maine Road has become synonymous with failure, Antic led Atletico to their first Spanish double in 1996. The subsequent anti-climax, both at domestic level and in the Champions' League, would normally have cost him his job. Gil hired and fired 27 coaches or managers in his first seven years, including Ron Atkinson.

However, in the 47-year-old Antic, it is as if he has found someone he trusts to challenge Real and Barcelona. That Antic was previously sacked by Real doubtless makes him a kindred spirit. Atletico's recent spending spree drew both on the fortune Gil has accumulated in property and finance - he is also mayor of Marbella, with the resort's name emblazoned on their shirts - and the television money with which Spanish football is currently awash.

Antic watched Juninho play four times in nine days for Middlesbrough last spring, including the Coca-Cola Cup final against Leicester. "What I saw was a little man with a big heart who never wilted," he said. "We will build a team around Juninho but I want him to have a free role. With players of his calibre, tactics can be counter-productive."

The new Atletico could not have faced a sterner test than to visit Real in the opening fixture. Juninho scored in a 1-1 draw, and looked sharper still as Valladolid were vanquished 5-0. Some pundits claimed Atletico were about to sweep all before them. The notion was disabused by Saturday's 1-0 loss at Bilbao. A late sitter squandered by Juninho offered Martin O'Neill's spies encouraging evidence of his mortality.

Gil, who had pronounced the restructured side "a cyclone with Juninho at its centre", saw it as a temporary setback. For Antic's sake it had better be: his boss once described a Real player as "about as welcome as a piranha fish in a bidet", though he could have been talking about himself.

While avenging the disappointment that Steve Claridge inflicted on Juninho in the Coca-Cola Cup final will be of no concern to the president, a big win would provide reassurance that Antic is taking Atletico in the desired direction. Tonight Leicester; tomorrow, if Gil gets his way, the Real world.