LISBON, Portugal -- What Atletico Madrid has achieved already this season is preposterous.
It has broken the Real Madrid-Barcelona duopoly that has dominated La Liga for a decade. It has won its first league title in 18 years -- it had been 16 season since they were even top of the table for a week. It has done so on an annual budget roughly $550 million less than that of the big two. And now, after all the hurdles it has overcome, it approaches its first Champions League final perhaps without two of its best and most consistent players.
For most teams you would suggest preventing Real Madrid from winning la decima -- its 10th European cup -- was an impossible task, but Atletico keep on achieving the impossible. The reason for their success isn't hard to find. The influence of managers can be overstated; it can be they just happen to be in the right place when a handful of players hit form at the same time, or when a club enjoys a sudden injection of investment. But when Diego Simeone took over two days before Christmas 2011, Atletico was 10th in La Liga and had just gone out of the Copa del Rey to Albacete of the second flight.
The club's financial situation was in shambles; even now there are tax debts to pay off. Last season, Atletico's top scorer, Radamel Falcao, left for Monaco; this summer its top scorer, Diego Costa, will surely leave, with Chelsea widely speculated as his destination. Atletico, like last season's Champions League runner-up Borussia Dortmund, is not one of the super-elite, but a side from the next tier down that is punching above its weight.
Real Madrid will still be there, battling in the last rounds of the Champions League, in five or 10 years; Atletico almost certainly will not.
Simeone acknowledges that but has encouraged his Atletico to fight anyway, convincing his players that titles and trophies were possible. Other clubs, facing the inevitability of the Real-Barca dominance have been supine before them; Atletico has not. It played Barca six times this season and didn't lose, and, although it was well beaten 5-0 by Real over two legs in the Copa del Rey semifinals, it took four points off Los Blancos in the league.
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Simeone is a man of profound intensity. He admits he never really switches off. He said last summer that he had come to hate going to the movies because if the film lost his focus for a second, his mind went to football and he could never get it back.
"He is like a God for us," said Atletico midfielder Tiago. "He arrived and changed everything. What he says comes through to us. We follow him: if he asks us to jump from the bridge, we jump."
Still, for all his qualities as a coach, it would make Atletico's task that much harder if it is without Costa and Arda Turan. Both were forced out of last Saturday's draw against Barcelona -- the game that sealed the league title -- with a hamstring injury and a pelvic injury, respectively, and the expectation had been that neither would play.
Both trained on Friday, though, and Costa completed a tentative sprint, suggesting both might be available. Atletico, Simeone said, has planned how it will play both with and without the pair.
As Atletico, in its first final for 40 years, chases its first European Cup, Real Madrid is seeking its 10th, the fabled decima. For Real, the sense of the Champions League as a quest is a familiar one. It won the first five European Cups between 1956 and 1960, and added a sixth in 1966, after which the wait for la septima felt eternal.
Finally, in 1998, Predrag Mijatovic scored the vital goal in the final against Juventus, to set up another flurry of success -- the Steve McManaman-inspired 3-0 win over Valencia in the final in 2000; and the 2-1 victory over Bayer Leverkusen -- secured with Zinedine Zidane's famous volley -- in 2002. Since then, though, it hasn't so much as been in a final.
"We were getting too used to it," said goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who, at the age of 20, came off the bench in the 2002 final. "Now, we've had to wait so long."
Casillas, now 32, insisted this team, despite it faltering at times this season, is mentally stronger than Real has been for the past few years. The club may have to do without the central defender Pepe and the center forward Karim Benzema, both of whom are slight injury doubts. Reigning FIFA Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, though, having barely played over the past three weeks, is fit to play.
Should Real win, not only would it become the first side to lift the European Cup 10 times, but Carlo Ancelotti would join Bob Paisley as the only coach to have won the trophy three times -- having won it twice with AC Milan. There had been speculation that he would be replaced this summer, but he was dismissive.
"The future," he said, "is clear." When pressed whether that meant he would stay at Real he was adamant. "Yes."