The Great Madrid Rematch

Estádio da Luz, circa 2014. Some things just stay exactly the same…

So, this is it. A full circle. A déjà vu. For the second time in just two years, the Champions League final will be contested by Atlético and Real Madrid. For the one day of a year, the majestic ground of San Siro is going to be swarmed by Castilians in white and red-stripped jerseys. Newspapers will fill thousands of columns with the analysis of how Spanish capital has managed to outrun every other European city in a quest for footballing glory. Journalists shall again delight themselves with the comparisons of the two teams, calling them Princes (as Real have eleven Champions Cups under their belt) and Cinderellas (since Atlético are yet to win one). One way or another, the supremacy of La Liga might leave everyone else blushing – providing, of course, that the final game of 2015/16 season won’t turn into a festival of bus-parking and nervous brutality.

Which, all in all, isn’t out of question when it comes to Atlético. In May 2014, while fighting for the same trophy against the same rivals, Diego Simeone’s lads have committed 27 fouls and picked up seven bookings. By the end of the match, it was the Argentinian manager himself, who got sent off for a brawl with Raphaël Varane. Although Los Colchoneros had a fairly non-violent semifinal confrontation with Bayern (mere 2 yellow cards in 2 games), against their ligue rivals and local rivals, they tend to stir up some disciplinary trouble. After all, less than a week ago, Barcelona and Sevilla have produced thirteen yellows and three reds in a Copa del Rey final. They’d fight to the bitter end – and those are the two teams that have already won one trophy each prior to their CdR contest! How crazy can it get with the Madridistas, who are completely lacking the 2015/16 silverware? It remains to be seen.

Still, even though two years ago Rojiblancos were widely praised for their unexpected Champions League run, it’s quite likely that the 2014 Atlético was a lesser team than the one Simeone has prepared for today. The 2014 squad might’ve scored two more league points and 14 more league goals – but the quality of players in certain positions has only gone up ever since. Thibaut Courtois has achieved 20 clean sheets in the past? No problem: Jan Oblak has pushed that record further, to the astonishing 24-time mark. Players like João Miranda or Raúl García have chosen other clubs? Fair enough: brilliant youngsters such as José Giménez and Saúl Ñíguez will immediately fill their shoes. Diego Costa has chosen a career in England? Fine: let’s bring a former winger Antoine Griezmann and use his pace on the counterattack to make a proper striker out of him.

 

As of Real Madrid, the two-year progress is harder to notice. In Lisbon, the club started Ángel Di María, Fábio Coentrão, Sami Khedira and Iker Casillas, who are all now playing elsewhere. The Argentinian’s replacement, James Rodríguez has recently had a poor season, dropped down to the bench and is now seen as the first player likely to leave Estadio Santiago Bernabeu this summer. Both Khedira and Coentrão suffered ugly injuries after departing from Madrid, so it’s hard to compare their quality to that of their Brazilian counterparts, Marcelo and Casemiro. One thing 100% sure though is that Los Merengues won’t suffer the same goalkeeping blooper as the one made by Casillas in 2014, when he failed to stop rather innocuous Diego Godín header. Iker’s descendant, Keylor Navas has been performing on a terrific level this year, even though it took a botched, last-minute David De Gea deal with Manchester United for him to keep a place between RM’s goalposts.

On Saturday, Zidane’s team will be banking on those assets – but, first and foremost, they shall rely on Cristiano Ronaldo’s unrelenting ambition. The Portuguese forward has a couple of his own scores to settle. So far, every time he’d appear in a Champions League final, he would play below his standards. Also, if breaks this pattern and strikes twice in Milan, he will improve his own record of goals scored in a single UCL campaign. For a striker, who’s been recently denied a Pichichi award by Barcelona’s Luis Suarez – this could be a good enough consolation prize. Alas, CR7’s predicament goes much deeper. Ronaldo, now 31 and approaching an exit from the professional football on a highest level, has to be well aware that this could be his last Champions Cup to win. He’s already put his stamp on La Décima; is it the final chance to push it further and be remembered as an author of La Undécima?

His leg is going to be fine – but can he break the streak of bad finals?

Curiously enough, just like Ronaldo, Zidane himself has had a few bitter memories about finals before he eventually created a pleasant one. In 1997, his would Juventus would enjoy an undefeated Champions League run – until the underdogs from Borussia Dortmund have beaten The Old Lady 3-1 at Olympiastadion in Munich. A year later, in Amsterdam, it was… Real Madrid, who stopped Juve from claiming the trophy. Only after his world-record transfer (later beaten by Ronaldo’s move), Zidane was able to put his hands on the cup – and he did so by scoring a stunning, acrobatic volley at Hampden Park, against Bayer Leverkusen. If Zizou prevails again, he will be only the 7th person ever to win the Champions Cup as a player and a manager. Considering that he’s is only 43 and may still have a long and successful managerial career ahead of him – this could be an extraordinary achievement.

 

Compared to that, Diego Simeone comes off as a huge underachiever. One UEFA Cup won in 1998 with Inter is the only European medal he brought home during his playing career. On Saturday, he will be an underdog again, combating both the bookmakers’ odds (roughly 2.50 for Real and 3.30 for Atlético’s win) and the potential big-club favouritism from the English referee, Mark Clattenburg. The supposedly “best football official in Great Britain” has just recently shown a lot of leniency towards Manchester United in an FA Cup final between Red Devils and Crystal Palace. If there’s a lot of aggression on Saturday or, worse – an early goal leading to a downward spiral of nervousness on both sides – Mr Clattenburg may find himself hard-pressed to retain law and order on the pitch (to put it mildly).

For Atlético, this is the game that could wash away all the feeling of disappointment they’ve experienced this season. They’ve already managed to horribly upset themselves by losing an away game to Levante. Three weeks ago, in Valencia, Los Colchoneros had their fate in their hands: they were leading after 80 seconds thanks to one through ball from Koke to Fernando Torres. Their opponents, occupying the last place in La Liga table, had nothing to play for. At 1-0, Cholo’s players should have been cruising to a victory – just like they did so many times earlier this season. And yet, in a strange turn of events, they conceded a headed goal by Víctor Casadesús – a striker, who normally wouldn’t even be on the pitch, as he was a second-choice forward, behind Deyverson. Forced to open the game, the visitors have created a handful of chances but never took them and it ended 2-1 for the hosts – after they caught Simeone’s lads on a counterattack finished by Giuseppe Rossi.

So it seems that there are chunks in Atlético’s armour after all. It’s a team that relies of holding the 0-0 scoreline for as long as possible, builds the confidence on it’s defensive resilience and eventually scores from one or two lethal attacking moves it’s pulling off at the highest speed possible. Against such opponents, it’s nearly impossible to score through a standard, positional build-up: it either has to be a set-piece, a chance created through the other side’s error or a bit of individual brilliance that creates the decisive advantage of numbers in the third half. Fortunately for Real, even though it’s unlikely for them to be on a receiving end of gifts from Atlético’s defenders, they do have a good set-piece record (24 goals this season, only behind Barcelona in Spain); they also can count on Ronaldo, Bale or Isco to produce some dribbling magic. Those are the issues Simeone must be thinking about right now.

There’s, however, one more factor that puts the entire game in question: the fatigue. The clash in Milan will be Atlético’s 57th competitive game of the season – which is five more than Real have experienced. This, combined with more physically-draining style Los Colchoneros are employing, could be their undoing – just like it was two years ago, when they collapsed in the extra time. In the light of these facts, Real’s grotesque disqualification from Copa del Rey in December doesn’t actually seem that painful anymore.

But heavy legs are not to be overestimated. Unlike in 2014, Atlético had now two full weeks to prepare for the final, as they did not qualify for Copa del Rey’s final. The difficult, narrowly won encounters with Barcelona and Bayern have only boosted their morale. Will all players fully fit and a potential slight injury scare from Cristiano Ronaldo (a knock in his thigh forced him off the training last Tuesday), chances are looking good for both sides. Although personally, I would be surprised if the final in Milan ended with all 22 players on the pitch…

 

2016 UEFA Champions League Final
28 May 2016, 20:45 CEST, Stadio Giuseppe Meazza-San Siro, Milan
Atlético Madrid – Real Madrid

(possible lineup) Atlético (1-4-4-2): Oblak; Juanfran, Giménez, Godín, Filipe Luis; Saúl, Gabi, Fernández, Koke; Griezmann, Torres; Manager – Diego Simeone
(possible lineup) Real Madrid (1-4-3-3): Navas; Carvajal, Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo; Modrić, Casemiro, Kroos; Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo; Manager – Zinedine Zidane

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

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