Champions League preview: Atlético vs. Real Madrid

European glory at stake once more for Madrid rivals in momentous Milan final

Colchoneros face Real in repeat of the 2014 final

Colchoneros face Real in repeat of the 2014 final

There are finals, there are local derbies, there are moments where two teams duke it out twice in three years for a trophy, and then there’s this.

Los Rojiblancos vs. los Blancos covers all those scenarios and then some. On Saturday, the footballing world will embark on Milan for a match that will write the pages of history.

If Real Madrid win, it’ll illustrate how they came back from Rafa Benitez’s poor management to fight until the very end for La Liga’s title, when by March many people had written them off.

Zidane will be looked at as the former Galáctico turned mangement savior who won his first Champions League title in his first stint as manager and doing so without a full season at the helm. Truly Zidane-like stuff, is it not?

As for the ‘underdogs,’ a win would solidify Diego Simeone’s place as arguably the best Atleti manager ever, he’d become only the third non-european coach to win the trophy and be regarded as a man who brought the club to it’s greatest European heights.

His philosophy would be renowned for beating clubs who emphasize possession-flare, a winning trend in recent years, and for doing so with a tremendous amount of theatrics from the touchline, a man who truly bled for his cause and for his players.

2014 is in the past, Atleti aren’t dealing with as much injuries or Liga title celebrations this time around, and Real Madrid aren’t dealing with unfit superstars and or midfield suspensions, they too are going into this with a nicely rested starting XI.

Are Atleti seeking revenge this time around? Would a movie poster advertising this match read, European Crown: Simeone’s Revenge? The Argentine would have you prefer something to the effect of European Crown: Simeone’s Opportunity:

“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.”

Although Simeone and his squad are going to tell themselves not to think of this final as a way to get back at their local rivals, you can’t help but feel as though for many that were there at Lisbon, they’re going to be fueled by the thought of revenge when the opening whistle blows.

For the average person in everyday life, social situations that warrant revenge may in fact hurt you in consequence or in the long-term. In sports, however, where everything is left on the field and the consequence is winning, revenge is a good motivator.

Anyway, read on for each team’s recent form, the probable starting XIs and more.

Real Madrid

Latest form in all competitions – D-W-W-W-W (Furthest right being most recent.)

From finishing the Liga season by going on a 12-game winning streak to winning 15 of 17 since late-February in all competitions, Real Madrid have truly been a “top-three club” in Europe as Simeone told the press on media day.

They’ve also benefitted from their best players being their best players in the Champions League. From Ronaldo erasing Wolfsburg’s hold on the quarterfinal with a three goal performance at the Santiago Bernabéu to Bale breaking the semifinal deadlock against Manchester City with a needed goal, they’ve relied heavily on individual performances to get the job done.

However, it doesn’t stop with the forwards, solid play from Keylor Navas, Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane, particularly in the Round of 16 tie against Roma, have also helped Los Blancos to the final.

Real Madrid has kept four clean sheets in their last five games across all competitions and has scored seven goals in that same stretch; they’re a team that’s been without many weaknesses in recent weeks. Tactically, however, Zidane’s emphasis on patient-play in the Champions League shouldn’t be overlooked.

With the exception of the first-leg against Wolfsburg, Real Madrid have respected their UCL opponents to the point that defense-first formations and mindset has, on occasion, been the difference maker.

Look no further than the second-leg against Manchester City when Real Madrid chose to play a tightly-compact 4-4-2 for the last 20 minutes. Simeone has even chimed in saying, “I expect Madrid to approach the game like they did the clash with Manchester City. I think they will be cautious.” We’ll see if this holds true.

Real Madrid’s possible starting XI – Navas; Carvajal, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo; Casemiro, Kroos, Modrić; Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo.

Key Players –

  • Casemiro – It can be argued that Casemiro was the biggest difference maker in his side’s 2-1 win over Barcelona in early April, the Brazilian is that good defensively. Why does it matter here? Well, since Atleti are likely to play on the counter, even more so in the second-half, then he might be the difference maker between Antoine Griezmann getting a clear chance at his center-backs or stopping a counter altogether.
  • Cristiano Ronaldo – There’s nothing more to say here, this guy is the UEFA Champions League all-time leading scorer with 93 goals, and has proven to score in the important games this UCL season. Ronaldo’s only hope for a goal may come from set-pieces and I don’t think that bothers him.

Atlético Madrid

Latest form in all competitions – W-W-L-L-W (Furthest right being most recent.)

Los Rojiblancos are going to fight with intensity, they’re going to defend like their lives depend on it, and they’re going to likely do something that they’ve done in the last two rounds but is often overlooked – press high.

Yes, in fact, in both first-halves of both legs against Barcelona, Simeone deployed a high 4-4-2 press, with emphasis on the fullbacks closely marking Barça’s wingers, while the holding midfielders cover their openings, and the wide midfielders close down passing lanes.

If the ball is east and then moves west, they’ll run and run and run until Real Madrid realize they can only keep the ball on the perimeter of the pitch.

What’s the reason for this you ask? Well, unlike wanting to get the ball back quickly like Barcelona does, it forces the opponent to waste time on the ball without getting near the penalty area, that’s the reward. There’s another, however, try to force a turnover in the opponent’s end and quickly and directly turn into a goal via through-ball or a set-piece-like play. Look no further than Saul’s perfect cross to Griezmann in the quarterfinal against Barça.

If they do get that goal, Atlético are likely to willingly defend it without pressing high and they’ll resort to sitting deeper to get Real Madrid to commit more bodies forward so Griezmann/Fernando Torres can do their thing.

This is their formula and it works. Atleti have kept 24 clean sheets in La Liga this year and have four in the knockout rounds of the UCL, so on paper this Real Madrid side isn’t something they haven’t faced before.

Defensive skills aside, Atlético Madrid have been aided by their ability for timely goals; look no further than Griezmann’s away goal at the Allianz and Saul’s wonder-goal in the first-leg against Bayern.

Atlético’s possible starting XI – Oblak; Juanfran, Godín, Giménez, Filipe Luís; Koke, Gabi, Augusto, Saúl; Griezmann, Torres.

Key Players –

  • Filipe Luis and Juanfran – Since Simeone likes to place emphasis on the fullbacks making their presence known to the opposing wingers before they get the ball, both the Spaniard and the Brazilian have to sometimes leave the back-line’s strict shape. This means their one-on-one play is sometimes the difference between the opponents getting the ball wide behind their defense and keeping them stuck out wide. Gareth Bale and Ronaldo will be tough opponents and both of Atleti’s fullbacks need to be on their best.
  • Saúl – Given that Real Madrid may play conservatively during some stretches, it could be up to Saul to unlock their compact 4-4-2 with a beautiful cross or perhaps another Maradona-like goal.

  • AaX

    I have just ONE Thing to Say : DARE !


  • Usavicente Calderon

    This is it!! Aupa Atleti! It is us against the world. No one wants to see us win due to our style of play, because we are physical, or you don’t like seeing a “small” team win it all.
    I will make one amendment to that statement: Barca fans dislike Real as much as Atleti fans, so they will be routing with us.