Zinedine Zidane is the only manager to win the European Cup or Champions League in three successive seasons. Thomas Tuchel is alone in reaching consecutive finals with different clubs and is the reigning champion. And yet there is a case for saying that the two finest managers in continental competition in the last decade meet in Madrid on Tuesday.
Certainly they are the two most consistent achievers in the period since Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho last conquered Europe. Diego Simeone and Jurgen Klopp only have one Champions League between them but both were in European finals in 2016 and 2018. Simeone also was in 2012 and 2014, Klopp in 2013 and 2019.
They have lost four Champions League finals between them, but all to clubs with greater resources and teams with more talent. Indeed, their sides have had extended spells when they have been the scourge of everyone except sides from the Spanish capital.
In Simeone’s first four seasons in the Champions League, the only team to knock Atletico out were Real Madrid. In Klopp’s first four campaigns in the competition at Anfield, Liverpool have only gone out to Real and Atletico. Both have claimed Barcelona and Bayern Munich among their scalps.
Klopp’s feats have been split between Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool but each has shown a longevity that is unusual in the 21st-century game. Each inherited a side mid-season and ended that campaign in a Europa League final. Each has had to elevate a club from mediocrity without the aid of a vast budget: their biggest buys have tended to be funded by sales.
Their medal collections, while impressive, could have been bigger. There are worse managers with more trophies but that is explained by the circumstances. They have been overachievers who have never enjoyed the greatest resources.
Simeone has taken on the clubs who were Europe’s two dominant forces for a decade and won two La Liga titles. Klopp has twice denied the Bundesliga’s superpower and prevailed in a Premier League with the greatest number of contenders, and at the expense of Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Perhaps that difficulty on the domestic front has made Europe a greater focus. There have been times when they could not overcome superpowers over 38 games but could be formidable opponents over 180 minutes. In their different ways, their sides have proved horrible opponents.
Nastiness comes more naturally to Simeone, more Machiavellian and menacing, a picture of mafioso chic while Klopp tends to be a gangly, grinning figure in club tracksuits and baseball caps, overseeing relentless running while he gees up the supporters. But if the Argentinian has been the finest defensive manager in Europe in the last decade, Klopp’s sides have been the best at the high press.
A couple of years ago, Klopp said “our identity is intensity.” The same applies to Atletico. Both have led the tactical response to the Spanish passing game; there was little possession for possession’s sake when Atletico won La Liga last season with only the eighth-highest share of the ball, while Klopp’s teams’ first instinct is to look forwards, not pass sideways.
More than most managers, they have created an identity and defined their respective clubs. Given Mohamed Salah’s superlative form, it may be an exaggeration to say the manager is the star at Anfield, but charismatic figures can feel throwbacks to an age of greater managerial authority. Klopp is in his third lengthy reign and if his spell at Anfield may end in 2024, Simeone’s time at Atletico can feel never-ending.
It is undeniable there has been a drop-off in his European results in recent years, with no Champions League semi-final since 2017. It may be a consequence of a broader decline of Spanish club football as, aided by Klopp’s Liverpool, the Premier League has captured the zeitgeist.
Yet, albeit in strange circumstances, he still became the first manager to beat Klopp in a European game at Anfield. And their continental rivals will probably be looking on at this double-header with particular interest. Because the evidence of the last nine seasons is that to win the Champions League, you probably have to beat Klopp or Simeone somewhere along the way.
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