Atleti can derail Zidane’s Real destiny as CL final set for Madrid derby
Holly Thackeray | May 5, 2016
The proud footballing city of Milan now has the names of the two giants of the game that will arrive at its gates to contest the 61st Champions League (formerly European Cup) final, and it is what most neutrals may have wished for – a Madrid derby between fierce rivals Atletico and Real.
Frays don’t come much feistier than this Spanish capital clash, and that’s when it is a regular season La Liga or Copa del Rey duel, never mind a scramble to be crowned kings of the continent.
This is the second time in the last three terms that Atleti and Los Blancos will have battled it out on the big stage, not just for local bragging rights but for the most coveted prize in club football.
If that wasn’t enough to tickle your taste buds, cast your minds back to 2014 when Diego Simeone’s underdog side looked set to ruin Real’s La Decima dreams, before an extra-time flurry of goals in Lisbon saw an unfairly lopsided 4-1 result to the men in meringue white.
Is it finally Atleti’s time?
It’s always tough for a team to claim this Holy Grail of cups when they have never lifted it before, but now Atletico have been blooded in the fire of a recent final and are a much more polished outfit for it.
Runners-up in this tournament twice, the Vicente Calderon club (6/5 with Coral to this time lift the trophy) will not want to be the bridesmaid for a third time and certainly not to noisy and far more decorated neighbours Real, who seek an incredible 11th winners medal.
Though the script looks set to finally reward Simeone’s determined discipline as Atletico sunk former finalist foes Bayern Munich (who defeated them emphatically 4-0 in the 1974 replayed finale) as well as reigning champions Barcelona to book their ticket to Milan.
The San Siro (a former stomping ground of Simeone, who once turned out for Inter Milan) will be the stage for Atleti to announce themselves as truly elite, as contrasting style’s from the Spanish capital contest the Champions League title while Catalan club Barcelona stay only watching from home.
It’s a chance for the smaller Madrid outfit to right wrongs from 2014, while still in contention for a double in the present, as just goal difference stands between Atleti and Barca in the fight for La Liga supremacy.
And boy has it been an incredible journey for the Mattressers, who have scaled some lows this century after being relegated from Spain’s top-flight in 2000, but also climbed to incredible highs – having claimed the Liga title 12 years on from clawing their way back to La Liga.
Zidane also has a claim on destiny
It is not just Atletico who can claim an intriguing subplot in this year’s edition, however, as when former France legend and original Los Blancos Galatico Zinedine Zidane grasped the helm after Rafa Benitez’s exit, many feared for his longevity.
Rumours of Jose Mourinho returning to replace the one-time Real Castilla coach abounded, as his Bernabeu boys looked unconvincing as they dropped points to Malaga, lost a Madrid derby on their own patch and required a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired fightback after being downed in a Champions League quarter-final first leg with Wolsburg.
Still, the fan favourite has so far survived being thrown in at the deep end and, mere months after being made boss has guided his superstar-studded side to a European final, a stage on which they more often than not excel.
Natural resources aside, the Champions League winner with Real in 2002 has steered a team missing the fantastic talents of Ronaldo and Karim Benzema past Manchester City. Los Blancos’ path was nowhere near as tough as Atleti’s but lady luck certainly seems to be shining on them.
Should he deliver Champions League trophy 11 to the bulging Bernabeu trophy cabinet, and run the La Liga race all the way – will Zidane present a compelling enough case to convince Florentino Perez and co to rest their tired trigger fingers for a few terms or so? Real’s revolving door of coaches could certainly use a rest, and a dynasty designed by a loyal former player and youth coach would be just the tonic.
Capital of contrasts
Two warring philosophies is what you get when a capital boasts two great teams – one bossed by a former midfield shield and another coached by one of the finest playmakers to have graced the game.
It’s no wonder then, that this showpiece will probably be billed as a final of two schools of thought. With Zidane’s rich roster of imperious attacking talent in one corner, bound to represent the Bernabeu with a forward thinking and attractive (if sometimes inconsistent) game reliant on big names, and Simeone’s stranglehold on a squad of slick but staunch and hardworking players.
Atleti and their “ugly football” tactics (per Arturo Vidal) are assembled on a much more modest budget than their Real rivals, and focus on pressing for dear life, with an onus on keeping it tight at the back. But they are far from “ugly”.
Of course, Atletico have also relied upon individual moments of brilliance also, but only on the base of brilliant teamwork, with goal gobbling Antoine Griezmann a true bright star.
Many of Simeone’s side are as selfless in defence and prevention as they are intuitive and alert up top, and this two-way team could really cause Los Blancos problems, having already seen off Barca and Bayern teams that tried to take the game to them.
Zidane’s outfit are far more porous and one-dimensional (though devastatingly effective at times in that), relying on being on the front foot as the Bernabeu demands.
Yet, the sheer quality of Real’s options in attack should not be underestimated either, though Atleti have denied their supposedly superior other halves in all but two of their last 11 meetings. Although, crucially, those duo of defeats arrived in the Champions League – Real’s specialist competition.
What would a win mean in Madrid?
Whoever the winner, the one thing for sure is that the Champions League title is bound for a flight from Milan to Madrid, and will stay for another season on Spanish soil.
La Liga’s heroes just know how to dominate the continent and are still enjoying their moment in the sun, with five of the last eight finals seeing a side from Spain victorious.
An Atletico triumph would certainly cause feathers to be ruffled in the capital, though maybe as much for Simeone’s side as Los Blancos (odds-on favourites at 4/6 to claim the silverware).
This team is as finely tuned as the vintage which lost to Real in Lisbon, perhaps even more so, but comprises of new components such as Griezmann that truly fit Simeone’s all-for-one ethos, while smattered with homegrown heroes such as Koke and Saul Niguez, with relative veterans such as Diego Godin much wiser from their last attempt. In fact, it is hard to hone in on a glaring weakness.
If they go one further this time, what is left to win? Should he snatch this silverware, Simeone will have won everything possible with Atleti both in Spain and Europe, and should have no shortage of suitors. It would be an achievement to rank with Jose Mourinho restoring Inter’s European pride, and perhaps should that aforementioned club come calling, the tactician may be tempted by a new challenge.
Used to rebuilding after seeing his squads raided by the Premier League, Simeone could well see the likes of Griezmann, Godin, stopper Jan Oblak and Saul have their head turned, and may not fancy starting from scratch yet again.
Though should Atleti fail at the final hurdle again it may not be a blessing in disguise, as Jurgen Klopp can surely advise after narrowly missing the chance topple Bayern in Europe with his own Borussia Dortmund in a strikingly similar situation.
While, as for Real, reverberations would surely be most felt by Zidane if they were to leave Milan with runners-up medals. Though, the Bernabeu already looks set for the yearly cycle of reshuffling, come what may. Both Simeone and Zidane have destinies to seize and Europe eagerly awaits.