Midfield rivals in their playing days, Zinedine Zidane and Diego Simeone will go head-to-head on the sidelines on Saturday to decide which will become the first to land the biggest trophy in club soccer as a coach. For both, the prize at stake in the Champions League final between Madrid rivals, Atlético and Real, is a huge one.
As a player, Zidane took home every major prize as an individual and for club and country – Ballon d’Or, Champions League and World Cup. Yet, thrust into one of the top coaching jobs in the world less than five months ago having previously coached only Real Madrid’s B team, Zidane has much to prove as a manager.
It has been a case of so far so good, after finishing the Primera Division season by winning 12 successive matches, albeit still finishing a point behind champions Barcelona. Yet, as he admitted ahead of the final in Milan, he is still very much at the beginning of his journey.
“I have a lot to learn still, but the desire I have to learn is tremendous so I am going to improve, for sure,” he said. “There’s still a lot I need to do to be a great coach. An important coach.”
Still, it would be far from unprecedented for a coach of Zidane’s modest experience to lift the European Cup. Seven men have previously done just that at the end of their first full season in charge, including Vicente del Bosque with Real Madrid in 2000 and Pep Guardiola with Barcelona seven years ago.
Zidane can also count on the experience of being a part of two Champions League victories. His spectacular volley against Bayer Leverkusen to deliver Real Madrid the European Cup in 2002 remains one of the most memorable final goals. And 12 years later, he was on the sidelines as assistant to Carlo Ancelotti when Real secured their next Champions League title, a long-awaited 10th, by beating Atlético in a dramatic final in Lisbon.
For Simeone and Atlético, the defeat, brought about by an injury time equalizer from Sergio Ramos before Real ran away to a 4-1 win in extra time, painfully continued their wait for the trophy. The loss came 40 years after Atlético’s only previous visit to the final, after another late, late equalizer crushed their dream against Bayern Munich before the German giants stormed to a 4-0 win in the replay.
As a player, Simeone, a midfielder very much in the mold of his current Atlético team – tough, wily but with underrated ability – got his hands on the UEFA Cup with Inter Milan, UEFA Super Cup with Lazio and La Liga title and Copa del Rey with Atlético. And in less than three years, he had amassed the same titles as a coach at the Vicente Calderon.
But the most celebrated prize has remained just out of his grasp. Yet Simeone has repeatedly insisted that revenge for the 2014 final defeat will not be a motivator on Saturday.
"There is no such thing as revenge in football, or in life for that matter, just new opportunities," he told UEFA.com. "'Revenge' is a negative word, because it harks back to a defeat; on the other hand, 'opportunity' is about optimism, confidence and what's to come, and that's what we want to show in the Champions League."
There is more to such proclamations than simple psychology, however. As Simeone later pointed out, his squad is a very different one from the one forced to watch on as Real Madrid held the trophy aloft two years ago. The club has had to recover from the loss of stars like Diego Costa and Arda Turan. And Simeone reinvented the squad, too, by allowing experienced faces like David Villa and Miranda to leave while developing younger talent such as Antoine Griezmann, Saúl Ñíguez and José María Giménez.
That level of turnover would make Simeone’s achievement of defeating the mighty Real Madrid, at the San Siro stadium he called home in his time at Inter Milan, all the more impressive. And Simeone, while never getting his hands on the very biggest trophies, as his counterpart did, has beaten Zidane to a major title before. In 2000, he was part of the Lazio side that edged out Zidane’s Juventus to take the Serie A title by a single point.
Atlético Madrid: Unlike two years ago, when Costa was carrying a hamstring injury and Turan was ruled out, Simeone has no injury worries this time around. Even midfielder Tiago is back after making his first appearance in six months in Atlético’s final match of the league season.
Real Madrid: Zidane was given a scare when Cristiano Ronaldo limped out of training on Tuesday after taking a knock to his thigh. The Portuguese forward has, though, insisted he will be at 100 percent for the final. Defender Raphael Varane is definitely ruled out, leaving Sergio Ramos and Pepe to line up in the center of defense.
Prediction: Aside from the Champions League, Atlético have enjoyed the upper hand over Real Madrid in the last three seasons, including in February, when Simeone’s side won 1-0 at the Bernabeu. Real Madrid should be stronger than that performance, with defensive midfielder Casemiro likely to be in the side on Saturday to add much needed balance to the lineup.
However, Atlético have been far more impressive on their route through to the final, beating Barcelona and Bayern Munich, while Real Madrid underwhelmed in getting past Manchester City and Wolfsburg. And with the tactical nous, defensive steel, ferocious intensity and clinical counter-attacking ability, Atlético could very well lift their first ever European Cup.
Predicted Score: Atlético Madrid 1-0 Real Madrid