For the second time in three years, the only team standing between Atlético Madrid and a first European Cup is the club that has long lorded it over them from across the Spanish capital Real Madrid. Atlético have more than proven themselves an adequate competitor in a rivalry that only five years ago had become embarrassingly one-sided, but now the prize of stopping Real Madrid in the competition that Los Blancos feel a closer affinity to than any other lies tantalizingly before them once more. The two teams played each other in the 2013-14 final, which fell in favour of Real 4-1 at the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon…
The prize could have been closer two years ago in Lisbon. With a first La Liga title in 18 years already wrapped up, a quite remarkable double appeared to be heading to Diego Simeone’s squad of hungry underdogs. With a typical Atlético goal from rugged center-back Diego Godín, Simeone’s men led Real Madrid 1-0 going into the third minute of injury time.
Then catastrophe struck. Sergio Ramos headed in an equalizer and Atlético were sunken, unable to recover from the blow in extra time and eventually lost, 4-1. As Simeone charged onto the pitch raging at anyone in sight, Cristiano Ronaldo ripped off his shirt in celebration. The Galacticos had survived an almighty challenge from their fearless neighbours to end a 12-year quest for an unprecedented 10th European Cup- ‘La Decima.’
It was easy to think that would be as good as it would get for Atlético. While Simeone resisted the lure of a move away, Diego Costa, Thibaut Courtois and Filipe Luis all departed for Chelsea that summer, while David Villa headed for the United States.
It took Atlético some time to recover. Last season, they finished 16 points behind Barcelona and 14 behind Real Madrid in La Liga. They would reach the quarterfinals of Champions League, only to be eliminated by Real Madrid on a strike from Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez in the 88th minute.
But recover they have. This season they are even better than before. Level on points with Barcelona at the top of La Liga with two matches remaining, they have already beaten arguably the two best teams in Europe this season—Barcelona in the quarterfinals and Bayern Munich in the semifinals of Champions League.
Incredibly, of the 18 players in the squad for Atlético Madrid in the 2014 Champions League final, only five remain at the club, and that’s only after Filipe Luis returned after an unhappy season at Chelsea. Despite that huge turnover, the same spirit remains. Under Simeone, Atlético have perfected the art of defending, keeping first Barcelona’s famed trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar at bay and then a Bayern Munich side under the command of the coach who reinvented attacking soccer, Pep Guardiola.
In doing so, Atlético also banished the ghost of their other painful European Cup final. Just as in 2014, 40 years earlier, on the only other occasion they made it through to the final, Atlético were denied victory by a goal right before the final whistle before going onto lose heavily, this time in a replay against Bayern Munich.
A route to the trophy through Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid would not only quite possibly be the toughest any European champions have endured but the sweetest possible for Atlético. Of course, defeat to their neighbours in the final would also only amplify the pain.
But then the same is true for Real Madrid. In terms of players, Real Madrid have changed far less than Atlético since the final two years ago. Nine of the 14 players who made it onto the pitch in Lisbon still remain, but the club has been in a far greater state of flux off the pitch. Unlike Atlético, where Simeone embodies the identity of the club, the manager at Real Madrid has continued to be far more interchangeable. The 2014 winning coach Carlo Ancelotti was dispensed with the following year and Rafa Benitez came and went within the space of seven months.
Still little is really known about the coaching characteristics and quality of the man who replaced Benitez, Zinedine Zidane. He has guided Real Madrid to an impressive run of 16 straight victories in La Liga to leave them just a point adrift of Barcelona. But how much of that has come from the trademark new-manger bounce and the fact that, to many players, Zidane is a welcome relief after the largely unpopular Benitez remains to be seen.
Certainly, in contrast to Atlético, Real’s route to the Champions League final has been far kinder. Still, they have made it anything but straightforward. In the quarterfinals they had to come back from a 2-0 first-leg deficit to beat a Wolfsburg side that finished in 10th place in the Bundesliga. In the semifinals, Real Madrid required a solitary own goal to beat a woefully insipid Manchester City team.
Regardless, it means the man who provided one of the all-time great Champions League final goals gets to return to the biggest stage in club soccer. Zidane struck a memorable volley against Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 final at Hampden Park to give Real Madrid the title. And it appears his recognition as a legendary player has helped him make selection decisions that would have been beyond many of his predecessors.
Whereas Ancelotti and Benitez felt a clear pressure to field all of Real Madrid’s galaxy of attacking stars, Zidane has felt able to leave out the likes of James Rodríguez and bring in the far-less flashy Casemiro. That clout will be a powerful tool at his disposal as he attempts to lead his team of individuals to victory over the ultimate team.
While Real Madrid have been able to eke out victories in their two Champions League meetings with their local rivals, Atlético have not lost any of the six La Liga meetings between the sides since ending their 13-year winless streak in the 2013 Copa del Rey final. It is no coincidence. Atlético’s physical strength, commitment and togetherness is the perfect weapon to exploit Real Madrid’s lack of balance and midfield toughness. With the individual stars they have, Real Madrid are always capable of winning any game. But if Atlético perform as they did against Barcelona and Bayern Munich then they should be getting their name on the trophy for the very first time.