By Iain Rogers
MADRID (Reuters) - Atletico Madrid's unbeaten Champions League group campaign, concluded in style with a 2-0 win over Porto on Wednesday, was more evidence that coach Diego Simeone has moulded his squad into genuine European contenders.
Under the charismatic Argentine, the Spanish side have developed a mean defense and built a highly effective attacking unit around in-form forward Diego Costa and they topped Group G with 16 points from six matches.
They conceded three goals, joint best along with Manchester United and Chelsea, and scored 15, and when the draw for the last 16 is made on Monday they will be among the teams the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City and AC Milan will want to avoid.
"We have qualified as group winners and we know we will be respected," midfielder Raul Garcia, one of many players in the squad who has flourished under Simeone, told reporters after the victory at the Calderon.
"We will try to continue doing things well in the Champions League," added the 27-year-old, who scored Atletico's opening goal in the 14th minute.
"Let's see how far we can get. We will retain our humility in our work and will respect whoever we are drawn to face."
Garcia said one of the reasons for Atletico's success this term - they are level on points at the top of La Liga with Barcelona - was a harmonious dressing room.
A former Argentina captain, Simeone played for Atletico when they won a Spanish league and Cup double in 1996 and commands absolute respect from his charges.
The combative midfielder was said to play "with a knife between his teeth" and he has also instilled some of that controlled aggression and fight in his team.
"One of the strong points of this club is the atmosphere within the squad," Garcia said.
"Everyone knows what they have to do and they are eager to do it.
"You can really notice it these past two years we have been working with the coach."
As well as Arsenal, City and Milan, Atletico's potential rivals in the last 16 are German pair Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke 04, Turkish side Galatasaray and Olympiakos Piraeus of Greece.
(Editing by Patrick Johnston)