The FourFourTwo Preview: Real Madrid vs Atl. Madrid
If familiarity really does breed contempt, Saturday night in Lisbon could come with a health warning and an 18 stamp. Because while this is famously the first time two teams from the same city have contested a Champions League final, it’s the fifth time this season these two have come face to face and they know each other inside out. With so much at stake, tensions should be entertainingly high.
REAL MADRID FORM
- Real Madrid 3-1 Espanyol (Lge)
- Celta Vigo 2-0 Real Madrid (Lge)
- Valladolid 1-1 Real Madrid (Lge)
- Real Madrid 2-2 Valencia (Lge)
- Bayern 0-4 Real Madrid (Cup)
ATLETICO MADRID FORM
- Barca 1-1 Atletico (Lge)
- Atletico 1-1 Malaga (Lge)
- Levante 2-0 Atletico (Lge)
- Chelsea 1-3 Atletico (Cup)
- Valencia 0-1 Atletico (Lge)
The romantics among us will be hoping the underdogs Atletico Madrid prevail, but Real Madrid have won two and drawn one of those four encounters, scoring seven and conceding three. They lost out to Atletico in La Liga, but they have the measure of their neighbours when they go head to head. “We’re confident, having beaten them a few times this season,” said Gareth Bale, in Spanish. “And we’re confident we can beat them again on Saturday.”
Los Blancos also have the additional incentive of standing on the very edge of history: win and they'll finally secure the 'Décima' – a magnificent 10th European Cup title. Having not even graced a final since that Zinedine Zidane goal final of 2002, and having been beaten in the last three Champions League semi-finals, the world's most powerful club has been made to wait. But the wait may almost be over.
Given their performances in this season's competition, few could argue that Real don't deserve their Décima, having been been in quite ridiculous form en route to the final. Dropping only two points in their group, Madrid plundered a record-equalling 20 goals in six games, or 3.33333333-recurring goals every game.
That ferocious strike rate dropped over the course of their three knockout games, but they still averaged 2.83 goals per game as they waged a personal vendetta against German football; Schalke, Dortmund and Bayern Munich all came and went as Madrid scored 17 more and conceded just four.
In all, Real have scored 37 times from 187 shots in this Champions League campaign. A nonsensical number of them have come from the golden boots of Cristiano Ronaldo, whose 16 strikes have set a new record for a single season, but Madrid threaten goals from all angles. By comparison, there really is no comparison where Atletico are concerned. Real's budget for the 2013/14 season was reported to be €515 million. Atletico's was €123m, so this is hardly a fair fight. But as Diego Simeone pointed out after winning La Liga: "this shows there is more than one way to win."
Atletico possess no such European history either. The closest they've come to winning European football's biggest prize came in 1974, when Bayern beat them after a replay, los Rojiblancos snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and being saddled with the nickname 'El Pupas' – the jinxed ones.
Even in this Champions League campaign, Atletico cannot compare. While Real have run their opponents ragged en route to the final, Atletico have taken a more cautious, defensive-minded approach, based on a watertight defence protecting the most effective goalkeeper in all of Spain.
They remain unbeaten and have conceded just six times in their 12 Champions League games, echoing a league campaign in which they let in 26 in 37 matches. Atletico's success has been built on an ability to defend manfully, wait patiently and counter with speed and cunning through Koke, Gabi, Arda Turan and Diego Costa.
The formula has clearly worked wonders this season, but injuries to Turan and 35-goal Costa in particular mean neither may feature on Saturday night. Therefore, the plan may involve more soaking, less countering and a greater emphasis on stealing a goal from a set-piece.
With so much speculation over who will and won't be fit, it's hard to predict the outcome with any certainty. What we can predict with some certainty is that whoever plays, there should be a good amount of friction. Over the course of this season, Atletico have received 95 bookings and two red cards. Real have seen 75 yellow cards and two reds, and feature the walking argument that is Sergio Ramos. So stand well back.
Xabi Alonso is suspended after picking up his cheap yellow card in Munich, which is excellent news for Atletico. The bearded metronome is as key a figure in Ancelotti's preferred 4-3-3 and will be sorely missed, with Atletico hoping to dominate the midfield with a 4-4-2 that slowly suffocates Real.
The only man definitely ruled out through injury is Madrid's knee-knacked Jesé, but Karim Benzema (groin) and Pepe (calf) are both doubtful. After some doubt, Ronaldo and Bale had been are both set to start, with Ronaldo coming over all Martin Luther this week by announcing “I have a dream”. A Décima dream. Atletico are sweating on the iffy hamstrings of key men Costa and Turan, plus Cristian Rodríguez.
Player to watch: Cristiano Ronaldo (Madrid)
If this wasn't a free publication, you'd be well be within your rights to ask for your money back when reading that we think the key man may well be Ronaldo. Insultingly obvious, yes, but with good reason: Ronaldo's 12 goals in 12 Champions League games tells you everything you need to know about his importance. If you need more, eat the stat that says those 16 goals have come from a ridiculous 53 attempts on goal. (The man in second place on the 'most shots on goal' stat is Lionel Messi with just 28.)
For Atletico, Costa is key, providing he makes a Lazarus-like recovery in time. But so too is Thibaut Courtois, the last line of defence on loan from Chelsea. Given the pressure Real will attempt to exert, and Ronaldo's crazy shoot-on-sight policy, how Courtois performs may well decide where the trophy ends up.
Two men we know well for different reasons. Carlo Ancelotti remains the cuddly uncle sacked by the voices in Roman Abramovich's head, despite the Italian masterminding an historic league and FA Cup double in his first season. Via a short, title-winning spell at PSG, he now finds himself filling the largely ceremonial position of manager of the world's most powerful football club. Failure to secure the league title will be tolerated if Ancelotti lands the Décima, you would think, but where Real Madrid are concerned we can never really know.
His opposite number Simeone will forever be that devious Argie wot got our David Beckham sent off, but he’s much more than that. After cutting his teeth at Argentina's Racing in 2006, Simeone arrived at Atletico in late 2011, via spells at River Plate, San Lorenzo, Catania and Racing again. In that short time he has overseen a revolution that has delivered a Europa League, Super Cup, Copa del Rey and, this season, La Liga.
His success is based on a strong team ethic – he insists his players eat at a single long table, rather than gathering in smaller groups based on nationality or experience. He has no favourites and he places great faith in squad rotation. More curiously, his success owes much to the influence of football’s most famous swordsman, his former Lazio manager Sven-Goran Eriksson.
"It didn't matter who we played," he remembered of the 1999/00 season in which Lazio won the Italian Supercup and European Cup. "We all knew there was a team-mate who would take our place at any given moment." Simeone's crucial strength, though, is the ability to convince his players that they can prevail, even with the odds stacked heavily against them. Which may come in handy in Lisbon.
Facts and figures
- Real have won 9 of their 12 finals in the European Cup/Champions League.
- Atletico have won only 2 of their last 30 competitive games against Real (7 draws).
- However, Atletico have won 4 of their 5 finals against Real Madrid, all in the Copa del Rey.
- Atletico are the only team unbeaten in the CL this season (9 wins, 3 draws).
- Real have the best attacking record in the CL this season, scoring 37 goals in 12 games.
- Atletico have the best defensive record in the CL this season, conceding only 6 goals in 12 games.
More FFT Stats Zone facts
If Diego Costa is missing, Real Madrid 3-1 Atletico Madrid. If he plays, Real Madrid 2-1 Atletico Madrid.