Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid contest the Champions League final on Saturday, with both managers facing headaches over their team selection.
Atletico started the week with huge concerns over the fitness of Diego Costa and Arda Turan, but it looks like both players will be fit enough to play at least some part in the game in Lisbon.
If they were both out of the game, then I think it would swing the game in Real Madrid’s favour, because they are both extremely influential in attacking areas. But it looks like there is still a good chance they will play, and if they do then I still favour Atletico Madrid to win.
The midfield area is the key. If you can win in that area, then you give yourself a great platform. If you don’t, it can be hard to win games.
With that in mind, the suspension of Xabi Alonso is a big miss for Real. Sami Khedira has played a little bit in the last few games after being out for a long time, but it’s an important area to risk a player who is not yet fully fit. If Real Madrid don’t control the midfield, then they won’t have the opportunity to play the passes into Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale that will allow those great players to make an impact.
Alonso’s passing ability has been a vital ingredient to Real's success for a while now. In this sort of game, the quicker you give attackers like Bale and Ronaldo the ball, the more chance they have to cause trouble. If you delay, if you don’t see a pass or if you are not capable of playing the ball first time, then it gives the defender the chance to adjust his position and get settled.
If you take a touch, or give him the ball in the wrong way, then it makes it a lot harder for the attacker. But if you give him the ball early enough, in the right positions and with the right weight, then once Bale and Ronaldo start running at defenders, it is very, very difficult to stop them.
Luka Modric is a different player than Alonso. He is a very good player, but he does not play balls first time. He likes to take touches and take time on the ball, changing the rhythm of the game, which complements Alonso’s style very well.
If Khedira were to play, then he does not have Alonso’s ability, and neither do Casemiro or Asier Illarramendi—who has not always impressed this season.
Obviously, Chelsea have been nowhere near Real Madrid’s attacking threat this season, but Atletico showed against Jose Mourinho’s side how potent they can be going forward when they control the game. They showed very emphatically in that tie that they are no one-trick pony.
People say they can’t attack the game, that they can only defend deep and play on the counter, but they showed different sides in the tie with Chelsea—especially in the second half at Stamford Bridge, when the game was theirs to lose, but instead they imposed themselves further, passing the ball and keeping possession in authoritative fashion.
It was a huge effort for them to win the league against Barcelona and Real Madrid this season: The last team to do that was Rafa Benitez’s Valencia in 2004. It will give them huge confidence, and what an opportunity they now have to do the double with a team that was unfancied at the start of the season.
This is the biggest game in club football, the biggest prize in European competition. There will be quite a few players in the final who have never won it before. You must take your chances when they come.
The World Cup won’t be in the players’ minds. They will want to win on Saturday, and then they will start thinking ahead to what the summer holds.
Sometimes having a slight niggle can take your mind off the game, because leading up to it you are focusing on getting as fit as possible and don’t have time to dwell on the game itself. It’s like with golfers, who suffer a slight injury and then go out and shoot 62, because they are not thinking about technical things or how well they are doing.
The important thing is to approach the game in the same way as much as possible, and the managers will play their part in that. Carlo Ancelotti has been in this position many times before, and Diego Simeone hasn’t, but really they both have to project an aura of calm and give players belief.
Atletico don’t need much help in that department after the way they won the league; then again, perhaps neither do Real considering how they have stormed through the competition to reach this point.
The most important thing now is to keep calm, because if you get too hyped and excited about playing the game, then you get on the pitch on Saturday and after 30 minutes you can start feeling a bit flat because you’ve expended a lot of mental energy already.
I think that was the case for Liverpool against Chelsea: They were in the position to win the league, they couldn’t score in the first 20 minutes and then they fell flat. It seemed to be the perfect example of a group that haven’t been in that position before thinking about it so much beforehand that they were spent by the time they needed to find something extra in the second half.
This is what the mind can do to you if you think about things too much—although I don’t think it will happen to either of these teams as they are all players who have been in this position before.
I think Real will find it hard to create chances without Alonso, and his absence also leaves them without that little bit of extra defensive stability.
The longer the game goes on, Atletico have players who can cause damage, and if they were to get the first goal—which I think they will—then I think it could be a tricky night for Real Madrid.