A year ago, Diego Simeone’s side defeated Real Madrid for the first time in 14 years at the Santiago Bernabeu to claim the Copa del Rey. After winning their first La Liga crown in 18 years with a draw at the Camp Nou last weekend, Atletico Madrid travel to Lisbon to participate in the first-ever local derby Champions League final against Real.
Although Real are in search of La Decima, an Atletico victory would complete an unprecedented double, and be classified as one of the greatest triumphs in football history. But Carlo Ancelotti’s men will arrive in Lisbon as favourites with Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo aiming to claim his second Champions League crown, and increase his record-breaking 16-goal tally.
This is expected to be a high-octane, scrappy affair, between two sides that thrive on the counter-attack. Stylistically, Atletico’s ability to maintain a high level of play and compete with Europe’s richest clubs is remarkable, and it’s fair to say that they’re not underdogs.
Atletico possesses one of the best defensive records in Europe, and they prove to be a difficult outfit to beat when their back four is fit. Equally, they shift and press as a unit, and quickly transition into attack with quick intricate combination passes.
Simeone’s men drop into two banks of four without the ball and the two strikers stick goal-side to the opposition’s deepest midfielder’s to close down passing lanes. The wide men –– Koke and Arda Turan –– adopt narrow positions to limit space between the lines and central areas. Full-backs, Juanfran and Filipe Luis, also decrease space between themselves and the centre-backs, and encourage the opposition to play through the flanks, as Miranda and Diego Godin consistently dominate aerial duels.
Atletico are capable of winning the ball higher up the pitch, or sticking to the aforementioned tactic, but under both circumstances their ability to quickly break into attack is pivotal. Both wide players are technically astute, hardworking players, with Koke drifting infield to express his creativity, while Turan evades challenges and motors forward. The positioning of the two forwards usually enables them to receive the ball while running towards goal, or dropping off to receive the ball and pull defenders out of position.
Diego Costa and Turan, however, are both injury doubts ahead of Saturday’s final following their early first half departures against Barcelona. While the latter is likely to feature against Madrid, Atletico are working hard to ensure the former is also fit. In both league fixtures this season, Costa worked the channels admirably and consistently tormented Sergio Ramos and Pepe. Likewise, Costa’s physicality, and eye for goal –– scoring 36 goals in all competitions –– is unmatched.
Adrian Lopez or Raul Garcia will be the likely replacement for the 25-year-old striker, and both men offer different threats. Similar to Costa, the former relies on pace, but in terms of strength and finishing he’s not quite at the Spaniard’s level. Still, when called upon Lopez has delivered, scoring goals against Barcelona and Chelsea en route to the final. The latter, on the other hand, could field on the right flank or upfront, and his physical presence would see Atletico play direct. In previous rounds he targeted Jordi Alba and Ashley Cole to utilize his aerial superiority, and the Spaniard’s 17 goals in all competitions is only bettered by Costa.
Atletico, though, isn’t the only side heading into Saturday’s final with personnel concerns. Gareth Bale and Ronaldo passed fitness tests earlier this week, but Pepe and Karim Benzema are both unlikely to feature, meaning Raphael Varane and Alvaro Morata will be included in the starting XI. Carlo Ancelotti will also be forced to decide between Sami Khedira and Asier Illarramendi to complete a midfield trio for the suspended Xabi Alonso.
Khedira has featured in Madrid’s final two games of the season –– 117 minutes –– after tearing a cruciate ligament in his knee six months ago. Khedira was in the midfield that lost to Atletico in at the Bernabeu in October, but he failed to trouble Simeone’s midfield. Illarramendi, 20, has struggled against physical sides that intentionally target the Spaniard, and it’s likely that Ancelotti may go for Khedira’s dynamism and tenacity, despite the German’s scarce match fitness.
Madrid have been at their utmost best in this tournament when given the opportunity to play on the counter –– most recently displayed against Bayern Munich –– but Ancelotti’s men will likely dominate possession, and the pattern of the match will be identical to previous encounters this season.
In three matches of significant value this season –– the tie was over in the second leg of the Copa del Rey –– Madrid struggled to break down and create legitimate goal scoring opportunities against Simeone’s men. The one match that Madrid won two goals stemmed from major deflections, and a well-worked move from Angel Di Maria and Jese Rodriguez. Atletico, on the other hand, pose a legitimate threat through set pieces, and if Costa is unavailable, Simeone’s men will aim to exploit Madrid in these situations.
Considering the circumstances, Luka Modric and Angel Di Maria will be the key men for Madrid. Both men provide the dynamism and creativity in midfield that steered Madrid to the Copa del Rey final, but were equally nullified in their second league encounter at the Vicente Calderon. With Ronaldo and Bale keen on drifting into central areas, Atletico’s narrow defending nullifies space for the wide players to cut into. Both men have failed to produce quality performances against the newly-crowned Spanish champion, with Bale struggling in 1v2 situations, and Ronaldo lacking service and space to create shooting angles. With that being said, Modric’s ability to dictate the tempo of the match, and Di Maria’s willingness to spring forward and provide a goal-scoring threat will be key.
In eight of the last nine fixtures between the two sides, a goal has been scored within the opening 15 minutes. And while an early goal is expected, it won’t necessarily alter the predicted pattern of the match. Atletico’s system solely focuses on limiting space in their third, defensive solidity, and quick transitions, and Simeone is reluctant to stray away from his philosophy.
With Madrid’s recent issues in open play against Simeone’s side, and their tendency to switch off during matches, one goal may be the difference between success and failure. In 12 months, Atletico have snapped various droughts against their cross-town rivals, and on the biggest stage in world football, they’ll be seeking to avenge their loss to Bayern Munich –– in which the late Luis Aragones scored –– 40 years ago.
With Atletico’s limited financial resources and diminutive squad, Simeone’s ability to get his side to sustain maximum levels and challenge on both fronts –– domestic and European –– serves as a triumph for modern football. Meanwhile, Madrid’s return to the final for the first time in 12 years will be considered a failure if they don’t claim La Decima.
The sky is the limit for Atletico, whereas Real have everything to lose.