Champions League Final preview: The Madrid showdown

Saturday’s all-Spanish Champions League final is the grand finale to the most remarkable domestic season the country has seen for years.

Background

The traditional two-way tussle at the top between Barcelona and Real Madrid – who had won the previous nine La Ligas between them – was turned into a thrilling three-way fight with Atletico Madrid, who against expectations won the title on the final day for the first time since 1995/96. Real finished a close third behind Barcelona on goal difference.

It’s against this backdrop that two teams from the same city contest European football’s biggest prize for the very first time. Atletico, the most improved team in Europe under Diego Simeone, are out to cement their new place among football’s elite with a maiden win in the competition.

For Real the stakes are even higher. By winning their first final since 2002, Los Blancos will end an agonising 12-year wait for ‘La Decima’ – a record tenth Champions League trophy – that has haunted them throughout the Galactico era.

Form

Although Atletico arrive as league champions, Real boast the more promising head-to-head record. The past three meetings between the clubs ended:

Atletico Madrid 0 v 2 Real Madrid (Copa Del Ray first leg, February 2014)

Real Madrid 3 v 0 Atletico Madrid (Copa Del Ray second leg, February 2014)

Atletico Madrid 2 v 2 Real Madrid (Spanish Primera Liga, March 2014)

Real also had arguably the more difficult route to the final, beating holders Bayern Munich 5-0 on aggregate in the semi-finals (including trouncing them 0-4 in Germany), while Atletico made hard work of dispatching Jose Mourinho’s overachieving Chelsea side.

That said, Atletico arrive in Lisbon buoyed by rapid improvement stretching back two years and free of the expectations that will weigh on their opposition.

Put simply, if Atletico lose, they’ve still had a fairytale season. If Real miss this opportunity then, despite winning the Copa Del Ray, their season is a disaster.

Key Battles: Gareth Bale vs Thibaut Courtois

Atletico’s top goalscorer Diego Costa has scored 27 in 34 appearances and eight in eight in the Champion’s League. The fact he’s ruled out of the final with a hamstring injury is a major blow that hands Real the attacking advantage

With question marks also hanging over the fitness of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, Real’s biggest attacking threat may well be the Welshman.

Carlos Ancelotti’s fluid 4-3-3 system is designed to get the best out of his wide forwards, and while the Atletico’s back four have already successfully dealt with Angel di Maria’s crosses this season, few sides can cope with Bale at his most direct (see his wonder goal against Barcelona in the Copa Del Ray final).

Courtois, the 22-year-old goalkeeper on loan from Chelsea, has been a key player for Atletico all season, showing judgement and consistency well beyond his years. His role in stopping Bale will be absolutely vital. It could well be the performances of two players who’ve arrived in Spain from London that decides this historic all Spanish final.

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