For Zinedine Zidane, Saturday’s Champions League final against Atlético Madrid may be the third he will experience with Real Madrid, but he is no doubt that he expects the tension to be far in excess of anything that has come before. Zidane scored the winning goal in the 2002 Champions League final at the end of his first season as a Real Madrid player and then got to taste victory once again when, in his first season as assistant coach to Carlo Ancelotti, Real beat Atlético in Lisbon.
The former France great can now complete a hat-trick after guiding Madrid to the final less than six months after replacing Rafa Benitez as manager. He believes, though, that those previous experiences will only count for so much when walking out of the tunnel at the San Siro on Saturday evening.
“It's different,” Zidane said in his pre-match press conference. “I've had it as a player, as assistant coach and now as head coach. I'm happy and I experience it intensely with the whole team.
“When the game starts I'll feel more tension, but it's part of the work of the coach and I like it. I've lived it as a player, but it's nothing like as a manager. Ancelotti always told me that. Before the final in Lisbon he said he hoped I would one day experience it as a head coach, and I always remember Carlo.”
Zidane has also stressed that he doesn't think defeat in the final would count as a failure. Yet, despite finishing the Primera Division season with 12 straight wins, Real Madrid fell a point short of Barcelona in the title race. And there have been reports on the eve of the final that Zidane could be replaced by Sevilla manager Unai Emery should the most successful club in the history of the European Cup not claim an 11th title on Saturday.
There is no danger of that fate befalling Zidane’s counterpart, Diego Simeone, regardless of the result. Yet that certainly won’t dampen the burning desire of the Atlético manager and his club to get their hands on the trophy.
There has been agony on the club’s two previous trips to the final. In 1974, a last gasp goal from Bayern Munich in extra time took the match into a replay which the German giants won at a canter. And it was a similar story 40 years later. Having already won La Liga, Atlético looked set for a remarkable double when going deep into injury time leading 1-0 through Diego Godin’s goal. But a late, late equalizer from Sergio Ramos off a corner forced extra time and, with Atlético demoralized and physically spent, Real Madrid stormed to a 4-1 win to end their wait for “La Decima.”
Simeone has avoided all talk of revenge ahead of the 2016 final, particularly with his squad having experienced a significant overhaul in the past two years. However, after overcoming Barcelona and Bayern Munich to get there, the Argentine has made clear that his side will be going all out to win the final.
"To play a final is absolutely fantastic; to win it is even better," Simeone said, according to Marca. That experience makes you want to continue those moments. It's not easy because you have to pick yourself up, keep inventing yourself, change the players but not change the commitment, the values, the work.
"If you keep working, you're insistent, you can achieve things. Football is wonderful; when you share a passion, it brings you together. Only winning would make us happy. Only that."
Unlike two years ago, Simeone will have a fully fit squad to choose from. Zidane, meanwhile, will be without defender Raphael Varane, but he has insisted that Cristiano Ronaldo will be at 100 percent, despite the three-time Ballon d’Or winner limping out of training on Tuesday after a collision with a teammate.
Kickoff time: 2:45 p.m. EDT
TV channel: Fox, ESPN Deportes