For a second time in three seasons the Champions League final is an all-Madrid affair. This time, the favorite isn't storied Real Madrid, though, writes Ben Lyttleton.
We have been before, and not that long ago. Real Madrid’s 1-0 win over Manchester City sets up a repeat of the 2014 Champions League final against Atletico Madrid. Atletico was the huge underdog in that game, and came within a minute of winning the trophy before Sergio Ramos’s 93rd-minute equalizer forced extra time. Real Madrid went on to a win by a flattering 4-1 margin, pulling away in the extra 30 minute.
It’s a different story this time around. For a start, Atletico Madrid now has to be the favorite. It has beaten Barcelona and Bayern Munich, both on away goals, to reach this point, and has the edge over Real Madrid in league games this season; a 1-1 draw at the Calderon on Matchday 7, and a 1-0 away win on Matchday 26. It currently is tied with Barcelona on points, one ahead of Real in a three-team race to the finish.
Then there is the Diego Simeone factor. He will be the first to say he is the underdog. The Argentine coach must have watched the second semifinal wondering if it was even the same sport: where was the intensity that we saw in the Bayern-Atletico thriller? The tentative Man City-Madrid game was not how a Simeone team plays. His sides are all about the collective and the sacrifice for your teammates. City’s players barely looked like they had ever met before.
Simeone was on the pitch after the game at the Allianz Arena in Munich Tuesday night, chatting and laughing on his cell phone with his family back in Argentina. When he was coaching in his homeland, he was not particularly popular, but five years and untold success into his career on the Atletico bench, they can’t get enough of him back home now.
“He is a huge star in Argentina,” said Federico Bassahun, editor of the quarterly magazine Don Julio. “He was misunderstood here for being 'too European,' and was massively criticized when he was at River. But for the work he has done in Madrid, he is now a star. He can do no wrong. And now some people want him to replace Tata Martino as Argentina coach. His teams play like he did: never give up and 100% intensity.”
There is a key difference in Atletico’s 2016 version, and it’s one that Simone will play on in the build-up to the final: inexperience. Only five players from the 2014 teams are still around two years later–Diego Godin, Juanfran, Filipe Luis, Koke and Gabi–and the others, who include Arda Turan, Diego Costa, Toby Alderweireld and David Villa, have all been replaced by younger players.
“We had more experience back then… players who were 28, 29 years old,” Simeone said Tuesday. “Now, we have a lot of young players who have learned and really improved. Saul [Niguez], for example, has shown what he can do, and that is something that makes me very proud.”
The flipside of the inexperience is that Simeone is building a team for the future; he already has a team that has reached two finals in three years and is contending for another league title. The match-winnner in Munich was scored by Antoine Griezmann, who, at 25, is the oldest of the new generation. He also scored the goal that won Atletico the game at the Bernabeu in February. With a revitalized Fernando Torres alongside him, this side is an upgrade on the 2014 team.
You could not say the same about Real Madrid. It may be in the final, but it has hardly been smooth progress: against Roma it gave up a boatload of opportunities; it lost the quarterfinal first leg 2-0 at Wolfsburg before Ronaldo came to the rescue with a second-leg hat trick; and in the semifinals it got past a City side that created its first moment of danger with Sergio Aguero’s shot from distance with 84 minutes gone in the second leg.
And yet, you cannot ignore the lure of the 'undecima.' Real Madrid may not have won in 11 visits against (Italian) opposition at the San Siro, the final venue, but Ronaldo should be fully fit by the time the final comes around, and, as coach Zinedine Zidane hopes, so, too will Karim Benzema. Gareth Bale has been in outstanding form this month, and he has proven himself as the team’s leader during Ronaldo’s quieter moments.
Zidane deserves credit, too, for improving the environment around the players that grew toxic while Rafa Benitez was there. Zidane is not a temporary coach like Roberto di Matteo was for Chelsea in 2012, but that is a precedent for a coach joining midseason and winning this trophy. Like Madrid’s 2014 coach, Carlo Ancelotti, Zidane knows what it’s like to play in this fixture (he scored a sensational volleyed winner in 2002), and the players have responded to his style of management.
Atletico Madrid vs. Real Madrid is usually a local affair, but in recent years it’s gone global. This time, though, there is a new favorite and, potentially, a first-time winner (Atletico was runner-up in 1974 and 2014). Not many neutrals would begrudge Simeone his moment of glory.