Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid were seconds away from European supremacy.
Following a remarkable La Liga triumph over Spanish powerhouses Barcelona and Real Madrid, Sergio Ramos last second header ignited an extra time onslaught, ultimately depriving Simeone’s men of an historic double. Carlo Ancelotti’s attack-minded substitutions – introducing Marcelo and Isco, which pushed Luka Modric into a deep-lying role – offered constant pressure against a fatigued Atletico side lacking a legitimate counter-attacking threat, and Simeone’s men couldn’t cope in the remaining 30 minutes of extra-time.
Though Atleti were so close to the unthinkable, it always felt like Real would notch an equalizer. What occurred subsequent to Ramos’ goal doesn’t reflect what occurred two years ago in Lisbon, yet this Saturday’s rematch at the San Siro offers a chance for both Madrid clubs to claim their first piece of silverware since that pulsating final.
“Revenge is a negative word, because it harks back to a defeat; on the other hand, opportunity is about optimism, confidence and what’s to come, and that’s what we want to show in the Champions League,” said Simeone.
“It was also perhaps a more mature squad, with the likes of [David] Villa, Raul García, Diego Ribas, [Jose] Sosa and Mario Suarez. This squad is different because it’s full of young players who are going through all this for the first time and will undoubtedly come out much more mature for the experience.”
Although the general pattern of the match will remain unchanged, the contrast in the paths both clubs have undergone is disparate. Where Real’s starting XI is fairly similar, only six Atleti players remain from the 18 named to the matchday squad two years ago. Certainly that highlights Simeone’s wonderful work at the Vicente Calderon, whilst eliminating tournament favourites Bayern Munich and Barcelona to receive another opportunity to claim the one trophy eluding the Argentine during his four years at the club.
Then, Atleti were without the clever Arda Turan, while Diego Costa’s hamstring resulted in the Spanish international’s premature departure within the opening five minutes. Atletico had developed the ideal formula to suffocate rivals Real through physicality and tackling – there 24.6 tackles per game is the highest in Europe – but Simeone’s current side have evolved into a much better unit.
Still initially operating in a 4-4-2 with Fernando Torres and Antoine Griezmann dropping ahead of the opposing midfielders to clog spaces in midfield and cut off passing lanes, Atletico now assemble themselves higher up the pitch, and are capable of employing an aggressive press in the early stages of matches – this was illustrated in Saul’s opener against Bayern in the first leg of their semi-final clash. This could fluster the Real centre-backs and defensive midfielder Casemiro, as they’re culpable of committing errors when pressed, and forced to receive the ball in tight spaces. Yet, Simeone often makes mid-game adjustments which witnesses his side revert to a 4-5-1 by pushing Antoine Griezmann wide and Koke into midfield to help protect central areas, while the former joins the attack from deep or charges into the channels.
While the defence remains well-drilled – Simeone’s men conceded 18 league goals this season – the midfield offers improved technical ability, and the combination of Torres and Griezmann ensures they enter Saturday’s final with a legitimate goal-threat. Griezmann’s pace is vital when Atletico quickly turn defence into attack via transitions, and he provided 22 league goals as evidence.
Then there’s Torres. Once regarded as the world’s most revered striker, the Spaniard rediscovered his goal-scoring form following his return to his childhood club. Although Torres’ pace has been an afterthought in recent years, he currently serves as a battling centre-forward capable of linking play with the midfield, whilst developing a deadly partnership with Koke when the Spaniard operates in an advanced central role.
This is a younger, flexible Atletico side to the one that stumbled with literally seconds remaining of full-time, and Simeone deserves credit for the club maintaining an elite level despite several key departures. Perhaps Atleti head into the final as underdogs, but in terms of natural balance, organization, tactical discipline, and cohesion, Simeone’s men are far superior to their city rivals.
However, Real’s strengths, particularly the midfield zone, have also shifted along with their manager. Similar to the 2014 final, Zinedine Zidane’s men are likely to include a natural holding midfielder in Casemiro with hopes of negating Atleti’s threat on the counter-attack. But opposed to having a direct runner capable of linking midfield and attack in Angel di Maria, now Real covet two exceptional ball-playing midfielders ahead of the Brazilian.
Modric was pivotal to Real’s dominance in the final half hour of normal time two years ago, and his short penetrative forward passes will be decisive against an Atleti side that rarely concedes space between the lines. Kroos, on the other hand, must also have a good game due to Atleti’s compact shape as a possible option to overcome a congested midfield zone is to overload the flanks and quickly alter the route of attack with diagonal balls – Real’s key players operate in wide zones so this is a logical attacking ploy.
“It’s one of these matches in which anything can happen, it will be very complicated.” Zidane said Tuesday.
“We are not talking about a team that only defends well. It’s a very complete team. It knows how to play. It can create a lot of difficulty to the opponent when it has the ball.”
Ronaldo and Bale have struggled to influence derby matches in recent years due to Atletico’s excellent organization, and where Juanfran and Filipe Luis have been excellent this season, they equally receive additional cover from their wide players. This means Ronaldo and Bale will often be outnumbered in wide zones, and with the full-backs likely to be cautious with their positioning, the aforementioned wingers’ aerial prowess could be significant via crosses and set-pieces.
Set-pieces were decisive in Lisbon two-years ago, and Atleti still possess a legitimate threat with Diego Godin attacking balls in the box. Real haven’t necessarily replaced Iker Casillas with a commanding goalkeeper, and though Keylor Navas’ shot-stopping skills are amongst the best in the world, Simeone may aim to exploit this area.
Real once symbolized the superior club in Madrid, but constant turnover via managers and players has suddenly resulted in a slight decline. Simeone’s four-year spell at the club has been the difference, and through assembling the best defensive unit in Europe, he’s transitioned the 2014 finalists into arguably the best club in the world.
The ability to mount challenges on both fronts with a completely new squad signifies the culture Simeone has instilled at Atletico, and his side represents a template for what Real should aspire to become. But a moment of individual brilliance from Zidane’s star players can shift that belief, and where Simeone has built a sustainable elite side despite financial restraints, a Real win would be the fitting end to an era that is slowly appreciating the commencement of their neighbours’ dynasty.