Saturday, 28 May 2016

Champions League Final Preview: Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid

The football world converges at the Estadio Guiseppe Meazza, Milan, as the final of the most glamorous club competition takes the stage in the fashion capital of the world. After a 9-month rollercoaster ride of narrow escapes, sensational strikes, upsets and heartbreaks, the battle for European glory has come down to a local derby, albeit one with more than a little sprinkling of international flavors – both in terms of actors and audience. It’s Real Madrid versus Atletico Madrid in the 2015/16 Champions League final, and as is the norm with this particular fixture of the football calendar, the suspense is immense.
It’s the second all-Madrid final in three years as Spanish teams continue to boss the continent, and Atletico undoubtedly come into this tie with a score to settle after their spectacular capitulation in the 2014 final in Lisbon. The Rojiblancos are still haunted by that agonizing defeat, where Sergio Ramos’ stoppage-time equaliser sparked a late revival for Carlo Anceotti’s Real who eventually romped to a 4-1 victory for La Decima. Both sides have since evolved, as has the competition, which will be featuring a headline act for the first time with award-winning singer and songwriter Alicia Keys lined-up to set the tone for a magical football feast at the San Siro.
Both teams may be separated by a few miles in the Spanish capital, but in terms of European pedigree and clout, they are worlds apart. Atleti will be making only their third final appearance following a defeat to Bayern Munich in 1974, and two years ago to Madrid. Hence a win will see them lay their hands on the Holy Grail of club football for the first time in their entire history. It’s been a steady climb back to European reckoning for Atleti after nearly four decades of oblivion, as a second Champions League final appearance on the back of two Europa League and UEFA Super Cup triumphs over the past six years has thrust them right up there with Europe’s elites. However, the true measure of their worth lies in the big one – a fact they’re quick to admit – lest they earn the nearly-men tag like another Spanish side, Valencia, who drifted out of reckoning after losing two European finals (once to real Madrid) at the turn of the millennium.
Real, on the other hand, are chasing a record-extending 11th trophy, and will be featuring in their 14th final – the most by any club. They’ve also been on a run of four consecutive final victories after successes in 1998, 2000, 2002 and 2014. However, victory tonight will be redemption for Los Blancos who have endured a mediocre campaign by their high standards. A wretched run in the Spanish Cup and successive runners-up finish in La Liga to eternal rivals Barcelona is the making of a storm at the Bernabeu. It’s a zero-sum game for rookie manager Zinedine Zidane, who, it must be said, has steadied the ship since replacing Rafa Benitez in January.
Road to Milan
Diego Simeone’s men have had a bumpy ride to the showpiece event, but then, that’s the only way they know. They came out top of a group that featured two-time winners Benfica, Galatasaray and Kazakh minnows, Astana FC, suffering just the one defeat in the process. Then they escaped a banana pill in the second round knockout tie against PSV Eindhoven, a fixture that coincided with a mid-season slump for Simeone’s men who drew blanks in four consecutive games. However, goalkeeper Jan Oblak, who leads the charts with 37 saves this campaign, proved to be the hero in a shootout victory. It was yet another manifestation of their vulnerability against “lesser” sides, as their La Liga challenge vanished after defeat at already relegated Levante. But they came to the party on the big occasions, seeing off pre-tournament favourites – Barcelona and Bayern Munich – with masterclass performances that have thrown up all forms of tactical and moral debates. Simeone’s lions have come to this fight with a big roar.
For many, Real Madrid have ridden their luck in the competition thus far, given the quality of opposition they’ve had to contend with. The Galacticos naturally topped Group A that featured Paris Saint Germain, Shakhtar Donetsk and Malmo, scoring 19 goals and conceding only 3 in the process. Zidane made his bow in the competition in the last 16 with two clinical performances to see off a wasteful AS Roma. Cristiano Ronaldo bagged a hat-trick to complete a 3-2 quarterfinal comeback victory over Wolfsburg, while Manchester City were an utter embarrassment in the semifinal. There is a strong feeling that the 10-time European champions are yet to be fully tested, leaving the upcoming clash with their close enemy as their first real test. How will they fare?
There’s been a fundamental shift in the dynamics between the two clubs over the past three years, and at the centre of it all is the feisty Atleti manager. Having failed to record a victory over Real in 25 games, the Rojiblancos have now won seven of the last 16, drawing five. Indeed, Zidane suffered his first managerial defeat to Atleti after Antoine Griezmann’s strike settled the derby in February. It was the only previous meeting between the two managers. After years of being cosy in the shadows of their more illustrious neighbours, the Argentine coach appears to have sparked an awakening in the club and they now threaten to reset the power balance in the capital. They gained a measure of revenge for the final heartbreak by pipping Real to the Spanish Super Cup months later, before eliminating them in the Copa and finishing off with the Liga double. However, Real can take consolation in the fact that their last two victories in the derby have all come in the Champions League, a 1-0 win last year and in 2014. The margins are never finer.
On the drawing board
If any team reflects their manager, it is Atletico Madrid. Prowling on the touchline like a trapped bear, El Cholo has managed to instill in his players the work ethic and belief that stood him out in his playing days. They may not always be pleasing to the eye, but they get the job done in clinical fashion. With 23 clean sheets in La Liga and just 18 goals conceded, Rojiblancos lay a strong claim as the most compact side in the modern game. Ever-green Uruguay centre-back Diego Godin marshals a stingy defence, the wily captain Gabi pulls the strings in midfield with the pacy Griezmann feeding off the creative skills of Jorge Koke and Saul Niguez. They are a well-oiled machine powered by intensity, and Madrid will have to get their white shirts dirty if they’re to take the day.
Key Players

With 12 consecutive La Liga victories and a European final, Real Madrid definitely turned a corner with the sacking of Benitez. An attacking philosophy combined with aggressive physicality has helped Zidane’s troops salvage a hitherto disastrous season, and they could put the gloss on it with victory in Milan. The midfield trio of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro brings balance to the side as Gareth Bale revels in his greater freedom, breathing life back into the attacking triumvirate of Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo and himself, or the ‘BBC’ as they’re fondly referred to. As always, they’ll try to create the spaces for talisman Ronaldo, who has scored 16 and assisted four of their 27 goals thus far.

The game is delicately poised between the two rivals who know each other as well as any two sides in the game, a fact not lost on both coaches.
“Revenge is a negative, because it harks back to defeat. On the other hand, opportunity is about optimism, confidence and what is to come, and that is what we want to show in the Champions League final,” Simeone said.
Zidane was no less philosophical in his submission: “We can’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, all we know is we’re prepared.”
With the sheer weight of history, individual milestones and the equally important matter of local bragging rights all riding on this one, it promises to be a final for the ages. Whether the great Ronaldo will beat his individual scoring mark and fire Real to glory, or the new kid on the block –Griezmann, will continue his giant-slaying act and obliterate the Galacticos is anybody’s guess. Suffice to say, tonight can’t come soon enough!
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (England)
Venue: Estadio Guiseppe Meazza, Milan, Italy
Verdict: This is a tricky one, really. Real have been named slight favourites by the bookies, but I’m inclined to disagree, what with Leicester City’s stunt (strike that) and the crazy season we’ve had thus far. However, Champions league winners tend to go through the tougher routes, as Atleti have this season. They’re the more cohesive group, and on the ascendency…I see them emerging victorious.
There’s your preview, make sure you do nothing else tonight!

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