The Champions League final may be taking place in Lisbon, but it's going to be a Madrid derby, as both Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid advanced to the final by besting Bayern Munich and Chelsea, respectively.
Real Madrid traveled to Munich with a 1-0 lead in aggregate and promptly smoked the German powerhouse, winning the second leg, 4-0, behind a Cristiano Ronaldo brace. Meanwhile, Atletico went to London and beat the Blues, 3-1 (which was also the final score in aggregate after the teams played to a scoreless draw in Spain last week).
Atletico has yet to lose in the Champions League this season. Can they keep up that spotless mark against their bitter rivals, though?
Let's find out.
|Saturday, May 24||2 p.m. ET (7 p.m. GMT)||Estadio da Luz, Lisbon, Portugal||Fox|
These teams have already met four times this season, with Atletico Madrid winning once (1-0 on September 28), Real Madrid twice (both legs of their Copa del Rey semifinal) and the teams' draw in their most recent matchup, 2-2, on March 2.
Their history in the Champions League, however, is quite different. Atletico Madrid haven't reached a final since 1974; while Real Madrid haven't made a final since 2002, they have won nine European titles.
Both remain in the hunt for a La Liga title on top of potential Champions League glory as well, with Atletico atop the table at 88 points and Real Madrid still in the running with 82 points (and a game in hand).
Atletico's season has been nothing short of incredible. They lack both the budget and overall depth of squads like Los Blancos and Barcelona, yet they could be in line for the double. Consider the following, from Miguel Delaney of ESPN:
Atletico the financially weakest team to reach a Champions League final since Porto in 2004.— Miguel Delaney (@MiguelDelaney) April 30, 2014
Midfielder Tiago believes the manager, Diego Simeone, has been the catalyst for the club's success, as he told PA Sport (via ESPN):
"Simeone has a lot to do with it. He has changed our mentality. We all work together, we work as a team. Playing like we play we are the strongest team in the world and we deserve what we have in this moment. We don't have anything, it's true, but we're close to having something."
The side has been led by Diego Costa (36 goals in all competitions), Koke (seven goals, 15 assists in all competitions) and sturdy midfielder Gabi (7.6 average match rating in La Liga play, via WhoScored). Seven players have started 45 matches or more this season for Atletico, a reminder of just how durable they've been on this run of amazing form this season.
But Real Madrid come into this match in absolutely scintillating form, led by an unstoppable offensive onslaught headlined by Cristiano Ronaldo (52 goals, 13 assists in all competitions), Karim Benzema (26 goals, 13 assists), Gareth Bale (20 goals, 16 assists) and Angel di Maria (12 goals, 20 assists).
Those four absolutely skewered the Bayern Munich defense on the counter-attack on Tuesday and made one of the deepest, most impressive sides in all of Europe look like a training squad. After, Bale told ITV Sport (via ESPN) the result was why he made his world-record move from Tottenham over the summer:
This is why I wanted to come to the biggest club in the world, to win trophies, to play in massive games. We know we still haven't won it yet. We will still have a difficult game in the final, whoever it may be, and we are looking forward to it.
It's a fantastic result for us. We have been working very hard, we got our tactics right and we deserved the win.
There isn't another club in the world that has the pace or quality on the counter-attack that Los Blancos possess, though Atletico is likely to give them far less opportunities to break in space. Still, Bale and Ronaldo don't need much space to change a game in an instant.
Another concern for Real Madrid will be the absence of stabilizing midfielder Xabi Alonso, who is ineligible to play due to accumulating yellow cards in consecutive matches. His presence has been a big part of Real Madrid's recent successes, and his pairing with Luka Modric has been one of the more underrated aspects of Los Blancos.
One of the really interesting factors in this final will be how each team approaches the La Liga slate. Could Real Madrid decide to concede the La Liga title to Atletico Madrid, knowing they'll have five games in 20 days to close the season? Could that factor convince them to prioritize the UCL final rather than a La Liga title, knowing they already also have the Copa del Rey won?
Probably not. While Atletico Madrid needs to lose for Los Blancos to get back into the title hunt, Real holds a sizable advantage in goal differential, and Atletico still has to play Barcelona on the final day of the season. A triple is within Real Madrid's grasp.
So, how will matchup No. 5 between these teams play out?
Atletico Madrid are going to want a slower game, a chaotic game in the midfield and they will likely look for every which way to keep Real Madrid from getting into a rhythm. They will likely be cautious (if not opportunistic) in the attack, knowing how dangerous Real Madrid are once they get into space on the counter-attack.
Unlike Bayern Munich, they won't be concerned with possession or getting numbers forward right away. They'll be cautious but calculated, disruptive but positive, a side that will likely be pleased to take a scoreless draw into extra time if it comes to that.
After four meetings with Real Madrid, they know that a few poor seconds can spoil an entire 90 minutes. They'll play cagey.
Real Madrid will likely have far more possession than they did against Bayern, meanwhile, and you'd guess they'd look to stretch Atletico as much as possible to isolate Ronaldo and Bale in pockets of space out wide. Modric in the midfield will need to play a flawless game, while Pepe and Sergio Ramos will be tasked with keeping Costa frustrated.
Very quietly, Real Madrid have allowed just two goals in their last nine matches. The defense has stepped up in a big way, which makes Los Blancos able to recoil defensively before striking like a threatened cobra when they regain possession.
In the end, it's hard to ignore Real Madrid's star power. Too many players are capable of too much brilliance, and the way they brushed aside the defending European champions looked like the performance of a team who knew they weren't going to be stopped.
This one should be a thriller, but Real Madrid will prevail, winning 2-1.