With just four days to go before the Champions League final in Lisbon, there is as much focus on the treatment table of Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid as there is on how the game may actually pan out.
The final day of the Spanish league season proved a dramatic one, not just in terms of the title race, but due to the number of players whose place in the Champions League final was thrown into doubt. First came the biggest name of them all, Cristiano Ronaldo, who pulled out of Real Madrid’s clash with Espanyol due to a thigh muscle injury.
While Madrid insist it was just a precaution, there must be some concern, with the player having suffered from a niggling injury for a number of weeks. Madrid-based publication Marca reports that Ronaldo will not take part in full training until Thursday and will not be 100 percent fit for the final in his home country, although will still be able to play without problems.
Madrid have potentially more serious problems, with Karim Benzema and Pepe both doubts. Benzema was forced out of the game with Espanyol due to a groin injury, while Pepe is still recovering from a calf strain suffered against Real Valladolid almost two weeks ago.
“They are our only two doubts going into the game,” manager Carlo Ancelotti said of Benzema and Pepe, according to sports daily AS. “As it stands today, neither of them can play; but we have four days and we’ll make a decision nearer the time. If Pepe can’t play, [Raphael] Varane will.”
While Varane is a more than accomplished replacement for Pepe, Ancelotti would be faced with a major dilemma should Benzema been unable to start. The France striker has scored 24 goals this season as part of a devastating front line alongside Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. Without him, Ancelotti would be faced with either moving Angel di Maria forward and selecting either Ronaldo or Bale through the middle, or else select 21-year-old Alvaro Morata, who has just one previous Champions League start to his name. The absence through suspension of Xabi Alonso further reduces the pieces which Madrid have available to move about. Still, with the World Cup on the horizon, Ancelotti said that no risks will be taken with Benzema’s injury.
“He is not at 100 per cent and if he is at risk of aggravating his injury, he won’t play,” he added.
Worryingly, the third member of the famed BBC forward line, Gareth Bale, also comes into the final on the back of a fitness issue. Bale recently missed two games and is still undertaking specialized fitness work, although he will certainly play in Lisbon, as he did against Espanyol when he also got on the score sheet.
Perhaps the biggest storyline going into the final, though, is over the status of Atletico Madrid’s talismanic forward Diego Costa. When the Spain international sat slumped on the Atletico bench, face covered and sobbing inconsolably seconds after pulling up while running onto a pass against Barcelona, his season and quite possible his World Cup hopes were feared over.
Like Ronaldo, Costa has been blighted by niggling injuries in recent weeks. It appeared that after in his 51st appearance of a sensational but grueling season, this time his body had told him that enough was enough. The good news, though, is that he has not torn his hamstring. An appearance on Saturday remains a long shot, although he is doing everything possible to try and get onto the Estadio da Luz pitch, including seeing famed “placenta doctor” Marijana Kovacevic in Serbia.
The prospects are better for Arda Turan, who went off minutes after Costa against Barcelona. The Turkey international, who plays a key creative role in a team primarily built around their intensity, has a hip problem but is thought likely to be fit.
Still, being without Costa, who has scored 36 goals to spearhead Atletico’s incredible season, would be a major blow. On the other hand, it would be yet another opportunity for Atletico to continue to defy ever greater odds.
And they have triumphed without Costa before. Atletico's victory over Barcelona in the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal came without the 25-year-old in the lineup, as did their title-clinching draw at the Camp Nou on Saturday.
On both occasions, Adrian Lopez, a player who had previously been used seldom this season, stepped in and performed admirably. Manager Diego Simeone would have no qualms in asking the man with two Spain caps to his name to do so once again.