Champions League Final, 2014
Moments before the final whistle, Sergio Ramos powered a header in to the back of the net and Real Madrid equalised. The expression on the face of their manager, Carlo Ancelotti, was one of relief. It was always going to go downhill from there for their city rivals, Atletico, who having scored the opening goal through Diego Godin in the 36th minute, sat back to defend their slender lead. After scoring the equaliser, the momentum was very much with Real Madrid going into extra time and they capitalised, achieving the much awaited La Decima (10th European title) with a final score line of 4-1. A score line that scarcely reflected how close Atletico actually were to winning.
Going into that game, Atletico were the underdogs. Despite having just been crowned La Liga champions, finishing ahead of the big boys of world football, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Despite having overcome impossible odds to break the decade long duopoly of the big two at the top of La Liga. They were minnows. The Champions League final was supposed to be a bridge too far for them. They lacked the superstars, the glamour and the flair. Real Madrid were always the favourites to win that game, to achieve what they believed was rightfully theirs, La Decima.
Atletico Madrid; no longer a surprise package
The two teams from Spain will meet again in the final of the Champions League final on Saturday in Milan. Atletico Madrid, under Diego Simeone have come a long way from being ‘outsiders’ two years back to being a force to reckon within Europe. They have gone on to prove time and again that the title winning season of 2013-2014 was not a flash in the pan. In the 10 Madrid derbies since the Lisbon final, Real Madrid have won one. Atletico have won five.
“I think it was a surprise to see Atlético reach the final two years ago, but I don’t think that anybody who has followed the team since can still doubt that Atlético has its place among the top teams in Europe,” said Paulo Futre, a former captain of Atletico and Portuguese international.
Diego Simone is the undisputed king at Atletico Madrid, often described as the working class heroes of La Liga. With limited resources, Simeone has managed to create a team which regularly challenges the best in Europe; a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. His team’s style of play is characterised by aggressive pressing, winning the ball high up the pitch and launching swift counter attacks. It calls for high levels of energy, organization and tactical discipline, all of which he achieves through a bunch of players who would go to war for him.
Much of Atletico’s success is built around their solid defense. During the 2015-2016 La Liga campaign, they conceded only 18 goals. Their system is built around each of their players taking up defensive responsibilities, starting with their forward players who press the opposition players incessantly in their own half. The defensive solidity is complemented by clinical finishing at the other end by their forwards.
Real Madrid’s Difficult Season
Real Madrid have not improved since the 2014 final, to say the least. They have found it difficult to replace the calming influence of Xabi Alonso and the tireless running of Angel Di Maria, following their departures. The team descended into chaos following the absurd decision to appoint Rafael Benitez as manager in June 2015, to replace the much revered Carlo Ancelotti. Six months into the job, Benitez was fired and replaced by Zinedine Zidane, Real Madrid icon as a player, but untested as a manager. Zidane’s reign didn’t begin well and the side had been written off. But, a late resurgence has ensured for Real Madrid a place in the Champions League final and a tightly fought La Liga, going into the final match day with Barcelona being the eventual victors. A sense of stability has emerged under Zidane, but it cannot be said with any sort of conviction that the current team is better than the one which played the final two years ago.
Contrasting routes to the final
To progress to the Champions League final this season, Atletico have beaten Bayern Munich and Barcelona in knock out ties. After eliminating Bayern Munich in the semifinal, Diego Simeone said, “This Champions League has been spectacular and very difficult. We have overcome two of the three best teams in the world”. On the other hand, one could argue that Real Madrid had a relatively easier road to the Champions League final; AS Roma, Wolfsburg and Manchester City.
“After the semifinals, and with Atletico’s intensity, I would make them favourites”, said La Liga President Javier Tebas, who is a self-confessed Real Madrid fan.
However, it is difficult to count out Real Madrid all together, given the individual brilliance of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric. The BBC (Bale, Benzema and Cristiano), as they are called, scored a combined total of 78 goals in La Liga this season.
When it comes to individual brilliance, Atletico Madrid have shown that they are not too far behind. Saul Niguez scored a Messi-like individual goal against Bayern, Griezmann has been consistently brilliant over the course of the season, Fernando Torres has had a good season and scored at crucial junctures and Koke has developed into a reliable provider of the final ball.
It would be prudent to say, that the tie is fifty-fifty, it’s too close to call. But, one thing is for sure, if Atletico win, it would not be an upset.
Atletico Madrid; Antoine Griezmann
From Atletico’s seemingly endless supply of world class forwards, has emerged another; Antoine Griezmann. Griezmann joined Atletico from Real Sociedad in 2014. 2015-2016 has been a breakthrough season for the Frenchman, scoring thirty two goals in all competitions. He has been decisive in the big games; scoring the goals that sunk Barcelona and Bayern Munich in knock out Champions League fixtures. Simeone talked up the ability of his star forward recently when he said, “Without doubt he (Griezmann) is one of the best three players in the world.”
Real Madrid; Cristiano Ronaldo
Ronaldo, at 31 is still the engine that drives Real Madrid. His form had dipped slightly from his lofty standards, but he has blossomed under Zidane. Ronaldo, in the past has been criticised for not performing in the big games. Since January, he has turned up for the crucial matches and made them his own; winner against Barcelona at Camp Nou, hat-trick against Wolfsburg in the Champions League when the tie appeared lost. He has scored 16 Champions League goals in 11 fixtures this term, and is back to his belligerent best.
Kabir Agarwal is a Mumbai based writer and researcher and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also happens to be a Real Madrid fan.