There is nothing new in the same two teams going head to head at the climax of the season both for the Spanish Primera Division title and the Champions League crown. That one of the teams involved is Atletico Madrid, though, very much represents a shakeup to the natural order of both Spain’s and Europe’s elite in recent years.
Perched at the top of La Liga, into the final of Europe’s premier competition for only the second time in their history, and the first time in 40 years, Atletico stand on the verge of an incredible achievement. Their manager Diego Simeone, already having overseen one of the most dramatic transformations of a club ever, is just three wins away from arguably the greatest single-season feat ever accomplished by a manager.
Yet, it could also be undone in the cruelest way imaginable, by none other than their fierce local rivals, Real Madrid, who have lorded over them at close quarters for much of their histories and demonstrably and painfully so in recent years. For, Real Madrid, too, however, the price of victory is immense and the thought of failure galling. While Atletico are trying to lift the trophy for the first time, Madrid are aiming to end what to them has been an interminable 12 year wait to become the first club to reach double figures in European Cup wins. La decima has increasingly become an obsession for those at the Bernabeu as the wait has become ever longer.
Having finally reached their first final since a run of three titles in five seasons, to fail against the team from across the city, which until recently they viewed with a sense of amusement rather than genuine rivalry, would be hard to shake off.
What is not in doubt is that Atletico and Real Madrid are worthy finalists. Both teams progressed to the European game’s showpiece occasion on the back of sensational second-leg performances in their semifinals when, in very different manners, they had the quality and flexibility to get the better of more one-dimensional opponents.
Madrid have been a team far more comfortable in possession this season under Carlo Ancelotti, but against a club who now controls the ball better than any other in Europe, the Italian changed tact. Having been far too open at times this season, Madrid showed that they could still defend diligently and compactly and used the open space on the break to allow Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Angel di Maria to tear into holders Bayern Munich.
Atletico came up against a Chelsea side who had a massively larger budget than their own, but yet who played with a similarly counter-punching, intense style. Simeone’s men, though, proved that they could defend as well as the 2012 Champions League winners, while also having more quality going forward and more willingness to do so.
Their pedigree and star power sees Madrid being made favorites, but this is a contest that is incredibly close to call. And, like the last three finals to be contested between teams from the two countries, it could well go right to the wire. (Manchester United against Chelsea and Milan versus Juventus were both decided on a penalty shootout, while Bayern Munich beat Borussia Dortmund last year with an 89th minute winner.)
Atletico are a side that relish the tag of underdogs. Los Colchoneros went into last season’s Copa del Rey final against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu having not beaten their neighbors for 13 years and 25 matches. But it was in that match that Simeone inspired his players to shake off their second-class status in their home city in the most impactful of fashions with a 2-1 win that brought the Jose Mourinho era to an ignominious end.
Atletico then made it two wins on the bounce at the start of this season, with a 1-0 win in La Liga. That, though, was a vastly different Madrid team than the one that will likely take the field in Lisbon. Notably, Gareth Bale had not yet found his feet or fitness and was on the bench, along with the underrated star of Madrid’s season Luka Modric. Similarly, Madrid’s 5-0 aggregate win over Atletico in the Copa del Rey semifinal is also largely irrelevant given that, although they fielded a strong side, Atletico’s intensity was not at its customary high level and two of the three goals in the first leg that effectively killed the tie were own goals.
The match that much more can be drawn from looking forward to the Champions League final is the 2-2 league draw between the sides two months ago. It was an encounter of ferocious intensity that could have gone either way and had controversial decisions aplenty. A key feature of that match was Madrid’s attempts to get under the skin of Diego Costa, who was denied two strong calls for penalties. Pepe is likely to be to the fore in that regard again in Lisbon and a strong referee will be key. It would arguably a surprise were the match to finish with 22 players on the pitch.
One player already denied a place in the final for disciplinary reasons is Xabi Alonso. And his absence could prove pivotal. In the most recent clash, Atletico overran Madrid in midfield for a spell and without the controlling presence of the veteran midfielder, that could become even more of a problem for Ancelotti’s side to overcome.
Asier Illarramendi, Alonso’s heir apparent, is the natural replacement, but the young Spaniard has had a mixed first season at the Bernabeu. Notably, he was one of those most culpable in almost allowing Borussia Dortmund to overturn a 3-0 deficit in the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal. The former Real Sociedad man could have a tough time with Gabi and Mario Suarez or Tiago pressuring him for 90 minutes. There remains a chance that the combative Sami Khedira could be back by the time of the final, yet it is hard to imagine him being back up to full speed by then, having not played in six months.
With the ability to negate Madrid’s counter-attacking threat perhaps better than any other club in Europe right now, intensity in midfield and creativity and firepower going forward, Atletico could well complete a remarkable resurgence in Lisbon with the greatest achievement in the club’s 111-year history.
When and where: The Champions League final will kick off from Lisbon’s Estadio da Luz at 2:45 p.m. ET on Saturday, May 24.