Richie Byrne: 'When you are standing next to players like Diego Forlan, Sergio Aguero and Luis Garcia, it is something else'Tue, Jan 19 2021
It is not every day an Irish player is given the task of marking a Champions League winner...
Dublin born left back Richie Byrne got that opportunity in November 2007, when his side Aberdeen prepared to face a star-studded Atletico Madrid away from home in the UEFA Cup group stage (the precursor to the Europa League).
extratime.com reporter Tom Byrne spoke with Byrne about that game in the Vicente Calderon stadium, which the former Shamrock Rovers man describes as a "surreal" moment.
"I had already played in Europe with Rovers in the UEFA Cup qualifying and the Intertoto cup," said Byrne thinking back to his Hoops days prior to his move to the Scotland initially with Dunfermline in 2003.
"We were beaten in the UEFA Cup qualifying by Djurgårdens (Sweden), who had former Arsenal player Kim Kallstrom on their side. They were the best team I had faced previously to playing Atletico Madrid."
Ahead of Aberdeen's showdown with 'Atleti', Byrne recalled the evening before the game, training on the Vicente Calderon pitch.
"What a feeling it was to walk into the stadium for the first time,” said Byrne who joined Aberdeen for the 2004/05 season.
“The night before the game we were training on the pitch. Myself and Sone Aluko were trying to do the Ronaldo knuckleball free kicks!" as he laughs, reminiscing on a memorable moment.
"The stadium is empty and you are looking around thinking, is this real? We are actually in the Vicente Calderon lashing football's around having a laugh."
The next evening was a match like no other for the Dubliner, as he geared up to face the Spanish giants in Madrid.
"What a feeling. When you walk out onto the pitch for the match and you are standing next to players like Diego Forlan, Sergio Aguero, Thiago Motta, Maxi Rodriguez and Luis Garcia, it's something else.
"It is like these players don't even take a touch when you play against them, it's half a touch. By the time you move to get to the ball, it's gone. The level is so high it is frightening.
"They don't make mistakes, I can't even explain it. You are there trying to get to them while they pop the ball around but it is impossible, they are so good. It's mad!"
The former Republic of Ireland under-21 international was given the task of marking former Liverpool player Luis Garcia, who had won the Champions League two years previous.
"I marked Garcia and then Maxi Rodriguez swapped over. Simao came onto that side as well," he says, recollecting the 90 minutes.
"It was mad as I am used to people taking a touch and usually on that touch I go into tackle them. But because Garcia played one-touch football, you can't get close to him.
"Their decision making is so good that they look at you and realise how you defend. They see this very quickly and play to their strengths and your weaknesses.
"Garcia knew I wanted him to take a touch so he just played one touch. He would play his one-touch pass, spin-off and I would try to block his run.
"If I made contact, he was going down and getting his free. It is a very high level you are dealing with, these players are thinking four or five steps ahead of you.
"Physically, most of them are small, to be honest, but they are still strong. They aren't even that fast in terms of beating you in a sprint over 40 yards. I bet them all in a run but it is the sneaky one or two-yard movement that does you. That's the difference," he says.
Atletico Madrid won the match 2-0, which included a goal from Diego Forlan. Byrne would acquire the Uruguayan's jersey after the match.
"I got Diego Forlan's shirt after the game. I didn't realise how good Aguero was going to be so I should have got his shirt. But Forlan played for Manchester United and I support United so I was delighted to get his top," says Byrne, proud of the moment.
Aberdeen would make it out of their UEFA Cup group which included an impressive 4-0 home victory against Copenhagen, a game where Byrne also played the 90 minutes. The Scottish side would eventually be knocked out by Bayern Munich in the round of 32.
But for Byrne, he will always remember the night his side faced Atletico Madrid in the Vicente Calderon stadium.
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