Eduardo Alvarez looks ahead to the all-Madrid Champions League final
On Saturday evening, and for the second time in three seasons, the two most traditional teams from Madrid will meet in the Champions League final.
The city of Milan, peacefully invaded by some 45,000 Madrileños, will host Atletico de Madrid and Real Madrid in a replay of the 2014 final in Lisbon. In that event, the latter team conquered the trophy with an extremely hard-fought comeback victory, but things could be different this time around.
Indeed, since both teams made the final, popular sentiment seems to have leaned towards Atletico, as the sympathetic underdog. They are obviously the more humble side, although which one isn’t when compared to Real Madrid?
Atletico have also suffered two heart-breaking defeats in Champions League finals - the aforementioned loss in Lisbon and a similarly gut-wrenching one in 1974 to the hands of Bayern Munich -, while Real Madrid lead the tournament’s winner table with ten titles.
Additionally, Atletico have eliminated PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona and Bayern Munich in their extremely demanding road to the final, while Real Madrid enjoyed an arguably easier path with AS Roma, Wolfsburg and Manchester City sounding more like an Europa League draw - with all due respect, of course.
The usual cliché about the clash of styles could not ring more true in this case. While Real Madrid exploit the talent of their stars, this version of Atletico - built over the last four seasons by his current coach and former player, Argentinian Diego Simeone - favours teamwork over individual brilliance.
Their defence is second to none, as a result of the well-coordinated implication of every single line to the task, starting with their forwards and finishing with an extraordinary back four marshalled by Uruguay’s Diego Godin and constantly yelled at by the phenomenal Slovenian goalkeeper Jan Oblak. To most teams, playing against them is as pleasing as visiting your dentist’s. It is no different for Real Madrid, who have only defeated them once in their last ten matches.
Real Madrid won the 2014 Final in Lisbon when Gareth Bale scored the winning goal in extra-time. Picture by: Manu Fernandez / AP/Press Association Images
Offensively, Atletico execute with impressive efficacy. The constant movements of Antoine Griezmann and the born-again Fernando Torres offer plenty of possibilities for the talented Spanish international Koke and both fullbacks - Filipe Luis and Juanfran - to create advantageous situations in the flow of the game. Of course, they are deadly when they steal the ball in the opposition’s final third.
Their opponents in the final have improved their collective work since Zinedine Zidane took over the bench from Rafael Benitez. That said, Real Madrid still depend heavily on their front three, the so-called BBC: Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo. They need minimal effort from the rest of the team to score, but also tend to avoid defensive work to keep themselves fresh to take advantage of any chance. Bale’s attitude in defence, much better in the second half of the season, will be key if the Madridistas want to keep their cohesion against Atletico.
Surprisingly enough in such a star-studded team, the key addition to Zidane’s starting line-up has been a 24-year-old, low-profile Brazilian who goes by the name of Casemiro. Lacking a proper defensive midfielder since Xabi Alonso left for Bayern Munich in 2014, Casemiro has earned that spot with his talent to disrupt the opposition’s offensive moves. This allows the offensively gifted Luka Modric and Toni Kroos to use their ability to feed the strikers instead of playing close to the back four. The balance brought by the Brazilian has been instrumental for Real Madrid’s improvement in the final months of the season.
The clash of styles is the obvious result of a clash of managers and their respective identities. Diego Simeone, a hard-working midfielder as a player, managed to structure a team that plays as he did: tough, dynamic, energetic, never giving up. Not every player fits into his model, but Simeone’s recruiting talent has overcome this apparent difficulty with a fantastic success ratio in his signings.
Zidane’s gifts when he played do not need any introductions; this Real Madrid squad also have plenty of their manager’s preferences. He plays with three forwards, demands that his team enjoy themselves with the ball, favours creative players over hard-working ones…
But it would be wrong to stereotype Atletico as a team of only untalented physical players or Real Madrid as a lazy bunch of prima-donnas. Both have earned the right to play the biggest match in club football because they managed to add the spice missing to their mix: in the case of Atletico, ways to exploit Griezmann’s or Koke’s talent; in the case of Real Madrid, a bigger implication of the forwards in the defensive tasks, plus the addition of Casemiro.
Two years later, the whole city will split itself in two again. From Atletico’s point of view, it’s time to exact revenge. From Real Madrid’s, it’s time to show that noisy neighbour who’s boss. Whatever the result, a mouth-watering match for the throne of European football awaits.