In the first ever Champions League final featuring two clubs from the same city, both Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have the opportunity to accomplish something that will forever be remembered as a landmark achievement.
For Real Madrid, the prize is clear and has been long sought. Almost ever since Zinedine Zidane’s incredible volley hit the back of the net at Hampden Park in May 2002 with a goal that would give Madrid a 2-1 victory over Bayer Leverkusen and their ninth European Cup, the focus has been on La Decima. Few fans would have thought it would take 12 years for Madrid to win the Champions League once more, let alone to merely reach a final. With each passing year, the desire has become increasingly an obsession.
Neighbors Atletico can only wonder at such a glory-laden history. When Atletico take to the pitch in Lisbon on Saturday it will be to contest the great trophy for only the second time and first since losing to Bayern Munich 40 years ago. Atletico have already lifted the Primera Division crown with a budget one fifth the size of that of Barcelona and Real Madrid. To top that by becoming European champions, just two-and-a-half years after Diego Simeone took over a side that was 10th in La Liga and had just been knocked out of the Copa del Rey by a team from Spain’s third tier would make it one of the greatest single-season achievements in recent memory.
In many ways, the action on the Estadio da Luz pitch will match the historical status of the two clubs. Real Madrid from a lavish part of the city are Spanish, and indeed European, royalty with a history that involves some of the greatest players to ever grace the sport. That is borne out in their current team which includes the two most expensive players in history, current world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo and €100 million man Gareth Bale. In Carlo Ancelotti, Madrid have a coach who throughout his career has tried to devise tactics to get the best out of his star players rather than getting players to fit a team philosophy.
In contrast, Atletico hail from the more working-class area of the Spanish capital. Their roots epitomized by their nickname, Los Cochoneros, the mattress-makers. Simeone, a man who was a tireless, dogged midfielder in the last Atletico team to lift the Spanish title 18 years ago, has fed upon the club’s heritage to create the ultimate blue-collar team.
On Saturday in Lisbon, it will be the superstar individuals of Real Madrid against the team ethos of Atletico Madrid. It is why, despite Madrid having a far stronger squad, the absence of players will present a greater problem for Madrid than for Atletico.
Much of the buildup to the game has been dominated by discussion of the fitness of a host of players. While Ronaldo looks set to make it, the closest thing to a star in Atletico’s team, Diego Costa, despite a boost of horse placenta, still looks a long shot to be named in the starting lineup.
The Brazil-born Spain international has scored a phenomenal 36 goals in all competitions this season to attract the attention of Chelsea, who he looks all-but certain to join this summer. But, having been bothered by niggling muscle problems for several weeks, Costa’s hamstring gave out and left him in tears on the sidelines during Atletico’s title decider against Barcelona last Saturday.
Atletico, though, both this season and in previous years have shown an incredible capacity to replace exceptional strikers. Last summer the prolific Radamel Falcao left Atletico, with many wondering how they could possibly replace his goals. Costa has done it seamlessly. Yet he has not been in the same sparkling form in recent weeks, with a grueling season perhaps taking its toll. In his absence Atletico have secured two of their biggest results of the season.
Adrian Lopez, twice capped for Spain but almost a forgotten man this season after just a handful of starts, has stepped in and like the rest of the squad fulfilled his role in the team superbly. In the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal against Barcelona, the versatile forward came in and assisted Koke’s decisive goal. In the return leg of the semifinal with Chelsea, Adrian again started and this time scored in a stunning 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge. And it was Adrian who replaced Costa at the Camp Nou on Saturday to play his part in a historic title-clinching draw. That result was also achieved after an injury to arguably Atletico’s most inventive player, Arda Turan. He, though, looks likely to return in time for Lisbon.
There is greater doubt over the participation of Real Madrid’s Pepe and Karim Benzema. While the hugely talented Raphael Varane could step in for Pepe, the loss of Benzema would require a reshuffle to the famed BBC frontline that has been so devastating this season, unless the young Alvaro Morata is thrown into the deep end of the Champions League final for only his second start in the competition.
It is the final’s only confirmed absentee, though, which could prove decisive. Xabi Alonso’s yellow card in the second leg of Madrid’s semifinal with Bayern Munich means Ancelotti will be unable to call upon the Spain international’s underrated and hugely influential presence. The pivot in Madrid’s midfield, Alonso sets the rhythm for the team and is so often is the supply line to Ronaldo. To stop Ronaldo you have to stop Alonso is an idea that Manchester United, far from the first or last to do so, adopted in their Champions League match up last year and it worked a treat until they were forced down to 10 men.
Alonso’s absence for the first two-and-a-half months of the season was all-too apparent. It was during that spell that Madrid lost to Atletico at home in the league, while the team was often crudely unbalanced. With Sami Khedira, who has played just 63 minutes since missing six months with a knee injury, and Asier Illarramendi as the possible replacements, Alonso will be hard to replace.
Illarramendi was signed as the heir apparent to Alonso for a massive €30 million last summer, but has not yet shown himself capable of filling the former Liverpool man’s boots. He was a part of the Madrid side that almost surrendered a 3-0 lead to Borussia Dortmund in the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal when his hesitation on the ball led to a breakaway goal. Similar lack of decisiveness in the midfield in Lisbon could be fatal.
While Atletico don’t press as high up as Dortmund, Simeone’s men have a similar intensity. Captain Gabi and his colleague Tiago will doubtless relish going up against the inexperienced Illarramendi. No midfielder who reached the knockout stages has averaged more tackles per game in the Champions League than Gabi this season, while only one has averaged more interceptions than Tiago, according to statistics by website Who Scored.
The midfield could prove a crucial zone and, helped by Koke, Arda, or Raul Garcia and their forwards coming back to help out, Atletico have the man power to get on top as they did for a long spell of the sides’ last meeting, a 2-2 draw at the Vicente Calderon in March.
It is difficult to imagine anything other than an incredibly closely fought contest once more. Atletico’s greater team cohesion and midfield intensity could wear Madrid down, but Ancelotti’s men will always carry the threat of one of their outstanding individuals producing something extraordinary to break the parity. Extra time and perhaps penalties could well be in store, but Atletico, who took the Copa del Rey in Madrid’s own backyard last season could top even that by denying their great rivals La Decima in Ronaldo’s homeland.
Prediction: Real Madrid 1-2 Atletico Madrid (after extra time)
Betting Odds: Real Madrid are 20/23 favorites to win in 90 minutes, according to Bovada.lv, with Atletico priced at 16/5 and a draw at 13/5. To lift the trophy, Real Madrid are available at 5/11 and Atletico at 7/4.