Champions League final: Atlético, not Real Madrid, deserving favourites at San Siro
Atletico Madrid head into the Champions League final at the San Siro in Milan as favourites, carrying with them an aura of intimidation that is rarely associated with a defensive-minded team.
If you’re a betting man, the prospect of predicting Saturday’s mouth-watering Champions League final must be keeping you awake at night. It’s a nightmare of a contest to call.
In one corner stands Real Madrid, record 10-time winners of the competition and a team so highly studded with big-match players, it is impossible to suggest or believe that all of them will fail to fire on the same night. In the other awaits Atlético Madrid, Real’s intensely unified local rivals who have had their opponents’ number in recent years, and a team which has proven to possess the Kryptonite to blunt the world’s best attacking units.
Two years ago, when these two Madrid clubs made history in Lisbon by competing in the first ever same-city European final, Atlético went into the contest as clear underdogs. And they played like one too, eventually running out of steam and collapsing like ten pins.
Fast forward to 2016 and the scenario is very different.Diego Simeone’s men, now pushing human limits of mental grit and physicality more than ever, are no longer outsiders. Instead, they head into the final at the San Siro in Milan as favourites, carrying with them an aura of intimidation that is rarely associated with a defensive team.
Of course, the bookmakers disagree. Such is the stature and history of Real Madrid football club, and the money that flows in with them on the table, that odds remain in favour of Los Blancos (‘The Whites’) in all the betting markets.Real manager Zinedine Zidane called it a “50-50” game this week, which is testament to Atlético’s rise up the footballing ladder. Rarely does a club like Real, boasting of some of the world’s most technically superior players in their ranks, go into any game as anything other than favourites.
Facts also back up Atlético’s case for being confident. Let’s first look at the clubs’ recent head-to-head record followed by the contrasting fortunes in their road to the final.
Since the 2014 final defeat, Atlético have faced their city rivals on ten occasions in four different competitions – La Liga, Champions League, Copa Del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup – losing only once and winning five times. These numbers suggest a clear head-to-head supremacy that should give Los Rojiblancos (‘The Red and Whites’) a psychological edge over their more illustrious opponents.
However, it must be noted that the one defeat to Real last season did knock Atléti out of Europe, albeit following a harsh red card to midfielder Arda Turan – something that will serve to further motivate Simeone’s men. It’s the third straight season that Atlético are running into their local rivals in the Champions League, and this competition remains Real’s playground.
In the aforementioned ten meetings, Los Rojiblancos scored 14 goals and conceded only six times, managing to negate Real as an attacking force. Los Blancos’ expensively-assembled offence has repeatedly struggled to penetrate through Atléti's compact defence or even circumvent their intelligent pressing. At the other end of the pitch too, Real’s defenders have failed to halt Atléti's swift counter-attacks and set-piece manoeuvres.
Los Blancos’ strength may lie on the flanks with wingers Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale but against Atlético's deliberately narrow formation, the two main men are often forced inside to make up the numbers, leaving the full-backs to do the wide attacking.This suits Simeone’s team, which finds comfort in seeing its central defensive pairing of skipper Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez command the box and deal with the final ball.
In La Liga this season, Atléti conceded only 18 times in 38 games. That’s less than a goal every two matches. Champions Barcelona were a distant second, conceding 29 times. Atlético rarely get stretched in matches or lose their shape on the pitch. They’re an exceptionally well-drilled team of 10 outfield players, all of whom play a role in forming an organised defensive unit.
From Juanfran and Filipe Luis, the club’s full-backs who have come in for special praise this season, to Fernando Torres and Antoine Griezmann, the lethal forward line that defends from the front, Simeone has his all of his men working tirelessly for each other.
Atlético offer the kind of mad-dog, fearless intensity that their opponents are yet to face in the Champions League this season. Real, who’ve been far from brilliant throughout the campaign, can be grateful to a lucky draw that has helped them progress this far in the competition. Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), in the group stage, offered Los Blancos their most difficult test. An underwhelming trio of opponents in AS Roma, VfL Wolfsburg and Manchester City followed in the knockout stages.
Not that the 10-time champions were anywhere near convincing against any of the three teams. Roma let them off the hook by providing a masterclass in missing clear-cut chances. Wolfsburg did the same by conceding a two-goal advantage from the first leg. And finally, a bizarrely cautious Manchester City barely put up a fight before going down by a solitary goal over two legs. It has hardly been the most glittering of European campaigns for Real and yet, they are a game away from being crowned “the best” in Europe.
In contrast, Atlético have earned a place in the final via the most difficult European route possible: by defeating Bayern Munich and Barcelona in consecutive knockout ties, following a nerve-wracking penalty shootout against PSV Eindhoven in the round of 16. How their powers of organisation and efficiency of counter-attack downed the two most feared teams in Europe will remain part of football folklore irrespective of the result at the San Siro.
Atlético head into the contest feeling like they’ve already played and won four finals before the actual final.If they can bring their ‘A’ game to Milan, there is no reason to suggest that the most coveted club trophy in world football will not be theirs come Sunday morning.
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