Saturday’s Champions League final in Milan may feature two teams from the same city, but in terms of their approach, both on and off the pitch, they could hardly be more different. It is the decorated aristocrats with “royal” in their very name against the team of the working class, nicknamed "the mattress makers." That contrast has been readily apparent through their histories and will likely be, too, in the way the two teams go about trying to lift the European Cup at the San Siro.
Real Madrid are the collection of high-priced soloists that their manager, himself one of the silkiest players of his generation, Zinedine Zidane, will try to mold into a coherent team. On the other side, Atlético Madrid are side where the team very much comes first, second and third, under the snarling, wily man in black, former midfielder Diego Simeone.
The Argentine was more than capable from a technical standpoint, too, as many of his current players are. And Gareth Bale’s comment ahead of the final that “Real Madrid are better in every position,” is arguably as untrue as it is unwise, given the motivation it promises to provide to a team not exactly short of it already. Yet far more so than their neighbors, the focus is on the collective rather than the individual.
For all that, it was perhaps the focus on one individual that cost Atlético Madrid when the two sides faced off in the final in 2014. Then, star man Diego Costa was selected in the starting lineup despite being nowhere near fit and duly limped off after his hamstring went again after just nine minutes. Atlético would go on and take the lead, but Real Madrid equalized in injury time after which Atlético had nothing left physically, having effectively had only two substitutions rather than three.
This time, it is Real Madrid that have been given an injury scare. Cristiano Ronaldo limped out of training on Tuesday after a collision with goalkeeper Kiko Casilla. While he immediately stated that he would be fit, there have been similar proclamations made about Ronaldo’s fitness before only for him to be less than 100 percent.
It is almost impossible to imagine Ronaldo not starting. However, if he is less than his best, it will hobble Real Madrid not only on the attacking end but without the ball, especially against a side capable of exploiting passengers like few others.
In 15 matches in since Atlético ended a 25-match losing streak against their neighbors in the 2013 Copa del Rey final, Los Colchoneros have had the upper hand in the rivalry. Real Madrid’s lack of balance and lack of physicality, particularly in midfield, has been repeatedly exposed. Such was the case in their most recent meeting three months ago, when Atlético won 1-0 at the Bernabeu.
Simeone is likely to adopt the same tactics this time around. Atlético’s ability and willingness to sit deep and stay compact can limit Real Madrid’s main weapon of their searing pace on the break. But Atlético’s counter-attacking threat, chiefly though Antoine Griezmann, can also expose Real Madrid’s backline, which through the attacking instincts of Marcelo and occasionally poor decision making and overly proactive nature of Sergio Ramos and Pepe can be vulnerable.
Also key will be the midfield, where Atlético are likely to be robust in the center with inspirational and dogged captain Gabi sitting alongside Argentine Augusto Fernández. Outside of them, the exceptional Koke is a central midfielder only nominally playing wide, while Saúl Ñíguez, although capable of the brilliant as he showed in the semifinals against Bayern Munich, will also come inside.
Yet Zidane looks to have learned at least one major lesson from that February defeat. Sitting on the bench throughout those 90 minutes was the one natural defensive midfielder at Real Madrid’s disposal, Casemiro. It is no coincidence that in every match since then that he has been fit and available, the Brazilian has been in the starting lineup.
He may be far from a world beater with the ball at his feet, but he helps give Real Madrid at least some of the balance they otherwise sorely lack. It will mean that two players with more ability and glamor, James Rodríguez and Isco, are likely to be watching on for much of the night from the substitute’s bench.
It is an interesting development that Zidane, a Galactico player at Real Madrid, has been both willing and able to move somewhat toward a more coherent team structure at the expense of some brilliant individuals. There is an element of that, too, in the selection of Dani Carvajal at right-back ahead of the far less defensively sound expensive acquisition from last summer Danilo.
The star players Zidane does field have also shown flashes of more of a blue-collar ethic, notably with Ronaldo even seen defending in his own penalty area in the win over Barcelona in April. If Real Madrid are to have their star quality shine through and emerge with their 11th European Cup on Saturday, they will likely need the likes of Ronaldo, Bale and Karim Benzema to match the commitment of their working-class neighbors.
D: Carvajal, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo
M: Modric, Casemiro, Kroos
F: Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo
D: Juanfran, Giménez , Godín , Filipe Luis
M: Saúl , Gabi, Augusto, Koke
F: Griezmann, Torres