Despite an ineffective first half display, Real Madrid came from behind to claim their 10th European title.
With this being the fifth meeting between the two sides this season, there was a good chance that the pattern of the match would be the same. Both sides prefer to play on the counter, but the manner in which they attack on the break is slightly different.
As displayed against Bayern Munich and Barcelona this season, Real prefer to sit deeper and utilize the pace of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo to punish opponents. Atletico, on the other hand, press the opposition in midfield and look to facilitate the ball to their forwards, as they’re positioned to receive the ball while running due to their deep positioning.
Simeone’s side, though, won La Liga averaging less than 50% of possession, and similar to previous encounters, Real dominated possession and was forced to unlock an organized Atletico defence.
The main issue Madrid encountered during three of the four meaningful matches with their cross-town rivals this season was the ability to create goal-scoring opportunities. Even their 3-0 victory in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinal was flattering, as two of the three goals took heavy deflections.
Ancelotti opted to play Khedira –– who featured in 117 minutes of action since his return from a six-month layoff –– ahead of Illarramendi who’s been exploited in high-profile matches on a few occasions this season. Experience was a factor in Ancelotti’s decision, along with the German’s mobility, tenacity, and strength. Khedira, however, was fielded as the single-pivot in midfield.
Similar to the first Madrid derby at the Bernabeu, Khedira’s presence was futile as he constantly decreased Real’s passing tempo, and his distribution was conservative. Atletico dropped into their traditional two banks of four to limit productivity in their third and central areas.
Likewise, Luka Modric and Angel Di Maria were forced to receive the ball near the halfway line to avoid Atletico’s press, thus impeding their impact on the match. Simeone’s side also pressed Madrid higher up the pitch –– more often in the earlier stages and when Costa was on the pitch –– as they aimed to quickly break into Real’s box. Villa and substitute Adrian Lopez harried Khedira when he received the ball, and the former also applied pressure on Modric in these areas.
In the first half, Real failed to test goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. Real’s best chance was created through Tiago’s misplaced pass at the half-hour mark. The pass fell to Bale, but as the Welshman ran into the box, desperate lunges from Tiago and Miranda forced the 24-year-old to steer his shot wide of the net.
Equally, Atletico’s shape without the ball must be lauded. Simeone’s men have impressively contained Bale and Ronaldo’s threat this season, and that continued in Lisbon. Both wide players prefer to drift into central areas to score goals, and while the Atletico wide players closed down passing lanes, Gabi and Tiago protected their back four admirably.
Bale occasionally dropped deeper to retain the ball, but in the opening half neither Karim Benzema nor Ronaldo touched the ball in Atletico’s box.
Adrian replaced Costa in the ninth minute, and suddenly Simeone was left with the XI many expected the Argentine to initially field. Ultimately this left Atletico’s attack limited in open play. It’s likely that Simeone would play Garcia behind Costa –– for his defensive pressure and offensive aerial threat –– with Turan on the flank, but with his best offensive options unavailable, set pieces appeared to be their best hope.
Prior to the goal, Atletico continuously aimed to overload the left flank, and deliver crosses to Garcia at the far post, as he attempted to isolate Fabio Coentrao. David Villa no longer offers the goal-threat he once did a few years ago, whereas apart from Adrian’s pace –– which forced Varane into conceding the corner that led to Diego Godin’s opener –– the 26-year-old’s threat upfront was scarce.
Subsequently, Varane half-heartedly cleared Gabi’s corner, and Juanfran instantly nodded the ball back into the box, but with Iker Casillas yards off his line, Godin out jumped Khedira and nodded the ball into the net. It was Godin’s eighth goal of the season –– all headers –– and without Costa it was the likely source for an Atletico goal.
Nevertheless, Real’s success always lied in the hands of Di Maria and Modric. Heading into the match they were two players that were required to perform if Real intended on claiming La Decima. The duo was outstanding in Real’s first leg Copa del Rey triumph, and in their draw at the Calderon, Turan and Koke nullified their strengths.
Here, however, Di Maria was the best player on the pitch. Often referred to as underrated, and rarely considered a big game player, the Argentine has developed into one of Madrid’s most important players since Ancelotti implemented the 4-3-3 system at the turn of the year.
Initially, Di Maria was instructed to play crosses from deep positions into the box. Although Atletico’s back four is dominant in aerial duels, the Argentine’s deliveries from deep have tormented Simeone’s men in every encounter this season. In the first half, though, a mixture of poor crossing, and lack of movement in the box meant Di Maria’s deliveries were ineffective.
Real required the Argentine’s dynamism in midfield, and his sharp runs from deeper positions tormented Atletico’s back four. In the early stages, referee Björn Kuipers, wrongly awarded advantage following Di Maria’s sensational run –– where Gabi fouled him –– which led to Coentrao breaking free into the box from the left channel.
That was a warning to Simeone’s men, as Di Maria forced Garcia and Miranda into bookings with his powerful runs from midfield. Meanwhile, in the second half, Juanfran feared that the Argentine would once again cause havoc in the final third, thus resulting in a cynical challenge subsequent to Di Maria’s first touch.
Di Maria’s dynamism in midfield made him Real’s most proactive player on the field, as he produced another breathtaking performance.
Atletico go 4-2-3-1
Simeone wasn’t getting the best out of Adrian as the highest attacker in Atletico’s 4-4-2, so the Argentine adopted a 4-2-3-1 in the second half. The alteration was beneficial to Atletico as they began to exploit key areas in Real’s third, whereas Adrian and Koke enjoyed a fine 10 minute spell on the left flank.
Now Koke and Adrian were on the flanks –– with Koke drifting into central areas to become a third passer in midfield –– and Garcia sat behind Villa as the main target man. Garcia played this role to perfection in the 2-2 draw at the Calderon this season, but the two wide players thrived in the early stages of the second half.
In the 49th minute, Filipe Luis dispossessed Dani Carvajal in Real’s third, and then played a pass to Koke who drifted over to the left flank to create the overload. Koke then delivered a cross towards the far post for Garcia, but the Spaniard side-volleyed his effort over the bar. Afterwards, the 22-year-old delivered another promising cross into Real’s box, and Coentrao’s header cleared the ball into Adrian’s feet, but his shot deflected off Khedira for a corner.
Equally, Adrian’s pace and ability to evade challenges in tight spaces enabled him to get the better of Carvajal –– along with Isco and Modric –– on a few occasions, but the 26-year-old lacked an incisive final ball. In terms of attacks created from open play, this was Atletico’s best spell, but their habit of not finishing their chances in big games led to their downfall.
Ancelotti quickly reacted to Simeone’s changes by introducing Marcelo and Isco for Coentrao and the underwhelming Khedira. Madrid effectively transitioned into a 4-4-2 with Isco and Modric sitting in midfield, while Di Maria was positioned on the left flank.
Seven minutes later, Simeone replaced the fatigued Garcia for Jose Sosa, thus leaving Villa upfront on his own. Atletico were now shaped in a 4-3-3, but due to Real’s superiority in possession, Simeone’s men were pegged into their half and they were more of a 4-5-1.
Atletico’s limited options on the bench may have forced Simeone to preserve his lead, and unlike previous meetings he reacted to Real’s offensive changes.
However, Ancelotti’s changes were identical to the ones made in the league showdown at the Calderon. There he started the match with two defensive-minded fullbacks before introducing Marcelo and Carvajal. Marcelo’s passing, dribbling and goal presence is superior to Coentrao’s, which explains the logic in the substitution.
Real also lacked a link between midfield and attack without Alonso, so Isco was introduced to exploit pockets of space as Atletico’s press decreased. Atletico’s players tired –– which is understandable due to their dynamic style of play and it being the final game of the season –– and with Simeone lacking match-changing options on the bench, or a threat on the counter, his men were forced to hang on.
Modric was now the deepest midfielder and the Croatian dictated the tempo of the match. Isco also served as a reliable passer, as well as comfortably retaining possession in the final third. Modric’s run towards the box led to Ronaldo and Benzema exchanging passes, before Isco fired a shot wide of the net. Isco also received a glorious chance to win the match courtesy of Carvajal’s chipped pass and his wonderful first touch, and turn, but Godin made a remarkable last-ditch tackle to maintain their slender lead.
Real camped in Atletico’s half for the remaining 25 minutes, and their were two variations to their attack. The first being quick combination plays around the box. Modric’s pass into Ronaldo saw the Portuguese forward play in Bale, but the 24-year-old fired his shot wide of the net. Subsequently, Bale and Ronaldo combined and the 24-year-old winger received a pass from the current Ballon d’Or winner behind the Atletico defence, but Godin’s pressure forced the Welshman to guide his shot into the side netting.
Secondly, Di Maria continued to play crosses into the box from the left flank, but last-ditch clearances from every member of Simeone’s defence preserved Atletico’s lead. Considering Atletico’s successful set-piece defending, it was surprising to see Simeone’s men concede a goal in this manner. However, Real’s inability to create legitimate goal-scoring opportunities against Atletico, and Ramos’ imperious form decreases the shock value; it was one of the few ways for Ancelotti’s men to equalize.
Ramos’ well-timed run towards the centre of the box allowed the Spaniard to get ahead of Tiago and nod Modric’s corner past Courtois with seconds to spare. Ancelotti’s offensive changes altered the tempo and pattern of the match, and Real were rewarded with a stoppage-time equalizer.
Simeone’s final change occurred minutes prior to Ramos’ equalizer as Toby Alderweireld replaced an injured Filipe Luis. Likewise, an injured Juanfran was forced to continue the match hobbling, as Atletico utilized their three available subs.
Nevertheless, the pattern of the match didn’t change. Villa did well to hold up the ball at times, but he doesn’t offer the physical presence Costa possesses, and he couldn’t outpace Varane and Ramos. When Atletico lost the ball it was immediately cleared back to Real, and with Simeone’s men wary of being exposed on the counter, they opted to soak up the pressure and play for penalties.
But in the second half of extra-time Real were rewarded for their persistent attacking. Di Maria evaded Juanfran and Miranda’s challenges following his run from the left flank, and while Courtois saved his initial effort, Bale nodded the rebound into the open net. Marcelo and Ronaldo added two more goals as the final 10 minutes was drab.
This match was similar to their league encounter at the Calderon. Atletico controlled the opening hour, but Ancelotti utilized his bench effectively in the second half to exploit Simeone’s side.
Costa’s ability to work the channels, break on the counter, and disturb Real’s centre backs were missed, and Atletico didn’t possess an attacking threat in open play.
“It was my responsibility to have [Diego Costa] play and obviously I made a mistake because I had to switch him as early as I did; obviously he wasn’t as good as he had been the day before. That was my decision to make. We looked at each other, we caught each other’s eye, and we didn’t want to waste part of the game with one less player,” Simeone said.
“What was most difficult was to get the equalizer. We didn’t have any space, Atlético defended very well, but we tried every way possible, right to the end – we managed to do it and then the game changed completely. The goal we scored gave us a lot of strength and after that perhaps we wanted the victory more,” Ancelotti said.
Frankly, the score-line doesn’t do Atletico justice; this was a remarkable season –– winning La Liga and reaching the Champions League final –– in which the likes of Porto, Milan, Chelsea, Barcelona and Real failed to beat them in normal time.
Still, this was a straightforward tactical showdown. In ways Simeone is similar to Mourinho –– from the petulance to the methodical approach –– but here, defensive organization and tactical discipline couldn’t overshadow a meager bench and minimal transitional attacks.
That enabled Ancelotti’s side to dominate the latter stages of the match, and with the help of Di Maria’s dynamism and key changes, Real emerged victorious.