SB Nation’s 2014Champions League Final Preview
There's nothing finer than a grudge match, and the Champions League final seems to know it. Last year we got to see two of Germany’s biggest clubs wrestle for the most important trophy in club football; this year, we've gone one better. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are separated by 350 miles, Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid by a couple of hours' walk. A Derbi madrileño for the European Cup? Games don’t get much bigger than this.
This rivalry is 86 years old. In that time, Real and Atléti, the meringues and the mattress makers, the team of the establishment and the team of the rebellion (even if actual history doesn't quite match those labels), have played one another 264 times. From an on-the-field perspective, none have been this important.
This is a battle between two teams that could hardly be more different, both in circumstance and style. Real Madrid is one of the world's biggest — and therefore richest — clubs. Their stadium, the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, towers majestically over the Paseo de la Castellana, Madrid's longest and widest avenue, lined by banks, businesses and embassies. They flaunt their success and they use their wealth: over the last decade, big name has followed big name, all in the pursuit of their 10th European Cup. La Decima, the trophy so important that it gets its own nickname. This is the club that defines itself by this competition; that won the first five finals; that has been stuck on nine since 2002. This is the club that wants — no, that needs — to be the first in Europe to double figures.
To that end, and in the attacking spirit that defines their previous successes, they've assembled one of the game's most explosive attacks. While Karim Benzema is the nominal striker, the real threat comes from around him: the dangerous duo of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, two men who've combined to score 21 goals in the Champions League, 55 percent of the club's scoring output in the competition this season. In just this one campaign, Ronaldo has scored as many Champions League goals as he did in six seasons at Manchester United.
Atlético Madrid, meanwhile, style themselves in opposition to the aristocrats, as the club of the working class. They play in the Vicente Calderón, which stands next to a brewery along the Manzanares River and has a motorway running under one of the stands. Los Colchoneros have only been to one European Cup final, in 1974, and they lost; they would love nothing more than to achieve history by ruining their greatest rival's party.
Led by head coach Diego Simeone, Atléti's style of play matches that of their manager. Precise, calculating, organized, with just a lingering hint of danger, they feature one of the best defenses in all of Europe and a ruthless physicality and work rate that few can match. They're not nice. They don't care. They're champions of Spain. And they're very, very good.
They’re two teams that know one another very well, two teams that don't particularly like one another and two teams who’ll deliver totally different styles. It’s one of the best offenses in football against perhaps the best defense. It's the closest we're ever going to get to finding out what happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object.
Welcome to the 2014 Champions League final.
Real Madrid (4-3-3):
Marcelo, Ramos, Varane, Arbeloa;
Di Maria, Illarramendi, Modric;
Ronaldo, Benzema, Bale
Real Madrid enters this Champions League final with lingering concerns about the status of their biggest star. Despite the continued assurances of Carlo Ancelotti that Cristiano Ronaldo will be fit and available, the fact that he left warm-ups before the Espanyol match on May 17th with discomfort and his limited training during the week are not reassuring.
Here's the thing about muscle injuries: they don't magically get better. Ronaldo hasn't played since May 7th and expecting him to be 100 percent, capable of playing with his usual speed and skill is foolish. Some might argue that Ronaldo at, say, 80 percent is still better than most players at full strength, but playing him represents a real risk.
Carlo Ancelotti will want Ronaldo on the pitch. He's probably going to start, but if something goes wrong with Ronaldo and the result doesn't go Real's way, there's going to be a ton of second guessing about this decision.
Karim Benzema's health is also an issue: the striker left Real’s final league match in the 60th minute with a groin injury. Whether or not he’ll be ready to play is an open question, and Ancelotti has said publicly that there is concern about whether or not his star striker will start.
But assuming Ronaldo and Benzema do make the starting lineup, Ancelotti will utilize the 4-3-3 that has served him so well since making the change from a 4-2-3-1 in early January. Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema would join Ronaldo in the front three, reuniting the dreaded "BBC" attack that has terrorized defenses for the past five months. If Ronaldo can’t play, Isco will take his place in the lineup, while if Benzema is injured, Alvaro Morata will get a start in what would easily be the biggest match of his young career.
If switching to the 4-3-3 was Ancelotti’s best move of the season, putting Ángel Di María in a deeper midfield role behind Ronaldo was the next best. Di María has been outstanding there, providing much-needed defensive cover for Ronaldo, who has a tendency to ignore his less glamorous duties. Earlier in the season, Madrid were getting scorched on the left wing, but thanks to Ancelotti dropping Isco for Di María the defense has stabilised without compromising the team’s ability to go forward.
Luka Modrić will start on the right side, but with Xabi Alonso suspended for the final, Ancelotti will have to use either Asier Illarramendi or the recently returned Sami Khedira in the third spot. With Khedira having only played once since coming back from a major knee injury, our guess is that Ancelotti will play it safe and start Illarramendi. Playing Khedira would also force Modrić to play in the middle, which he could do, but Ancelotti is unlikely to contemplate rocking the boat ahead of Real’s biggest game in more than a decade.
In the defense, there are more tough choices to be made thanks to injury problems. Reports suggest that Pepe might not be fit enough to start, which would leave Raphaël Varane playing alongside Sergio Ramos. Marcelo will start at left back, and while Dani Carvajal has been the consistent first choice right back most of the season, Álvaro Arbeloa's experience presents an appealing option for Ancelotti, and he might just be the safer pick.
Iker Casillas will be in goal, just as he has throughout the Champions League.
Atlético Madrid (4-2-3-1):
Felipe, Godin, Miranda, Juanfran;
Koke, Garcia, Turan;
Diego Simeone has a lineup problem ahead of Saturday's final. Diego Costa's hamstring seems determined to keep him out of the match, and even if the striker feels well enough to play, starting him would be a massive risk. The last thing Atléti needs is for him to pull up like he did against Barcelona, and send Simeone's entire plan into a tailspin. Despite Simeone’s public optimism about Costa still having a chance to play, the reports of a grade 1 hamstring strain mean that there’s virtually no chance the Spanish striker is available.
Arda Turan's health is the other concern after the winger picked up a knock against Barcelona, but he should be ready to play.
With Costa probably out, Simeone has a big decision to make, both in terms of who he starts up top, and what formation to use. His first choice alignment for the majority of the season has been a modified 4-4-2, with two strikers, two wingers in a more advanced role, and two deeper midfielders. However, in three of the four matches Atléti has played against Real Madrid, he's gone with a 4-2-3-1 formation, choosing instead to add an extra midfielder to play behind a lone striker.
With Costa sidelined, the question becomes one or two strikers, and given Simeone's patterns this season, it makes more sense that he'll go with a 4-2-3-1 in the final. Here's why:
Atléti have only played three different players at center forward, and there's not an obvious fourth choice. Unless Costa is miraculously fit, then, playing two strikers means starting the match with both David Villa and Adrián. That’s a risky move — if one gets injured it would necessitate a tactical shift mid-match. Starting Villa, with Raul García behind him in a central attacking role, is probably the best choice.
With Villa and García working as an attacking tandem the rest of the team will be able to operate in their usual fashion. Arda Turan and Koke will play as wingers, Gabi will take his roving midfield role, and Tiago Mendes will probably — at least, if recent games are any guide — assume a deeper, defensive role.
Expect Juanfran and Filipe Luís at full back with Diego Godín and João Miranda anchoring the line in front of Thibaut Courtois.
Casillas Arbeloa Varane Ramos Marcelo Modric Illarramendi Di Maria Bale Benzema Ronaldo Courtois Juanfran Godin Miranda Filipe Gabi Tiago Turan Garcia Koke Villa
Diego Lopez Pepe Carvajal Coentrão Khedira Isco Morata
Aranzubia Alderweireld Suarez Sosa Diego Rodriguez Adrian
Real Madrid Players
At the start of the season Carlo Ancelotti faced a problem: how would he manage to keep both of his goalkeepers happy? Last season’s performances suggested that Diego López was deserving of the No. 1 spot, though relegating Iker Casillas to the bench altogether wasn't an option. The Madrid native is one of Real Madrid's greatest ever players, having joined his hometown club at just 9 years old, subsequently going on to make in excess of 600 appearances — and already winning two Champions Leagues — with Los Merengues.
Ancelotti eventually resolved the dilemma by playing López in the league, and leaving the Champions League and cup duties to Casillas. It is a move that has paid dividends, with ‘San Iker’ having made a string of impressive performances en route to the European final. He may turn 33 this month, though he’s still got the catlike reflexes which made up for his relative lack of height when he burst onto the professional scene in the late 1990s.
There's always been something strange about Alvaro Arbeloa's presence at Real Madrid. One can imagine an ancient crone bestowing a terrible curse on the club upon being done some tragic wrong: "You shalt have the finest players in all the land, the best money can buy. But Alvaro Arbeloa will be your right back. Forever!" At which point Arbeloa arrives from Liverpool for around €6 million and proceeds to be the least interesting person in the whole club.
It's not that Arbeloa is a bad player. Far from it — he's average or above at pretty much every aspect of the game. He's just not a star, a former star, or anyone with any pretenses toward being a star. And at the Santiago Bernabeu, that's a very strange position to be in. He's one of the few reminders we have that Real Madrid are mortal, and for that he should be eternally cherished by outsiders while the club frantically tries to get rid of him. Arbeloa will probably start over Danny Carvajal, for reasons of experience and consistency.
One of Carlo Ancelotti's first acts as Real Madrid manager was to persuade the disaffected Pepe to stay in Spain. According to Ancelotti, with Manchester City lurking in the background and with Jose Mourinho's unhappy reign fresh in the memory, "He was hesitant about staying but decided to after I told him he was important." That importance cannot really be overstated; while the Portuguese spends a fair chunk of each game rolling around on the floor, charging into arguments that have nothing to do with him and generally gobbing off, he spends the rest of his time being really rather good at defending.
Able to hold his own physically, and being in possession of one of football's finer leaps, his real strength is in the reading of the game and the timing of his interceptions, which is one the reasons he occasionally gets nudged into midfield by Portugal. He complements the more dynamic, less reliable Ramos perfectly and, while he couldn't be more of a cartoon villain if he spent his time tucking sticks of ACME dynamite down the shorts of his opponents, he hasn't been sent off since December 2012. Unfortunately for Pepe, it's looking increasingly unlikely that he'll be fit to start the final.
Significantly less despicable and/or hilarious than his regular partner, Pepe, depending on how po-faced a mood one is in, Sergio Ramos is also much more likely to be dismissed. He holds the record for La Liga dismissals with 19, but when he's not fouling people or trudging off the pitch looking aggrieved, he dovetails wonderfully with Pepe. Quick over the ground, strong in the air, comfortable in possession and only occasionally these days caught out of position, the Spaniard also takes quite a decent free-kick, not that he ever really gets the chance.
Ramos a wobble in form earlier in the season amid rumours that he was unhappy at the Bernabeu, but all was quickly forgiven and forgotten. "We’re seeing the real Sergio Ramos now, not the player from November or December," said Ancelotti at the end of February, who has also described the Spaniard as "one of the best central defenders in the world." He is also a persistent threat in the opposition box: his two early set piece headers in Munich effectively killed the semi-final.
When Marcelo moved to Real Madrid as a teenager, he was expected to become the best left back in the world. Unfortunately, he's stagnated a bit, but he's still a very solid player and good enough to be first choice for Real Madrid. He's a minor liability defensively, but his technical ability, athleticism and wicked left foot make up for it.
Because Cristiano Ronaldo likes to cut inside from the left wing, Marcelo is often depended on to provide the width on the left flank when Real are attacking. This can leave holes in behind him on the counter-attack that are equal parts his problem and a risk associated with their tactics. But when you're as good as Real Madrid, you can get away with having a left back that is basically just an extra attacker.
This season has seen Luka Modric make that final step: from one of the most talented midfielders in world football to one of the best. With Sami Khedira missing most of the season and Xabi Alonso starting to creak at the seams, Modric has stepped up and asserted himself as the dominant figure in the middle of the park. As former Real striker Davor Suker puts it: "Real plays better when Modric is on the pitch."
Though he doesn't score many — just the two so far this season — he is as crucial to Real's system as the superstars up front. Tireless, technically brilliant, and accurate with his passing, the little Croatian stitches his side together; one second he's picking the ball up from his defenders or harrying an opponent into an error, the next he's sliding the ball into space for one of Gareth Bale or Cristiano Ronaldo. He may not look like the traditional box-to-box midfielder, lacking the physique that stereotype demands, but this season there haven't been many players who've looked so in tune with where the ball needs to be, and how best to move it from here to there.
When 'Illara' was purchased from Real Sociedad, he wasn't expected to slot into the first team right away. The 24-year-old cost €30 million, but he was seen as an apprentice to Xabi Alonso, who would take over the veteran's starting position in a season or two. But due to Alonso's suspension, Illara is likely to start the Champions League final, since he's the closest thing Real has to a direct replacement.
It's clear why Real bought Illaramendi, assuming they're dead-set on having a new Alonso. He has all the same attributes, except he's a bit more athletic. He doesn't have quite the same silky touch and ability to pick out the right passes that Alonso has right now, but he'll probably get there in a year or two.
Ángel di Maria
Ángel di María may well be enjoying the greatest season of his career to date, and it’s in no small part down to an inventive switch from Carlo Ancelotti. Unlike José Mourinho, who almost exclusively played the Argentine on the right wing, Ancelotti has shifted di María into Real Madrid’s midfield trio, affording him a more central role in the team’s offensive play while allowing Gareth Bale to star in his favoured wide role. It’s a switch that saw di María pick up more assists than anyone in La Liga this season.
It has allowed Ancelotti to make the most of the Argentine’s excellent movement and favoured left foot, with di María drifting out to the flank to compensate for Cristiano Ronaldo’s tendency to cut inside. His energy and pace means he offers a level of defensive protection, while also providing a constant threat in bursting forward into space on the counter-attack. It’s no doubt partly his impressive performances that have helped Ancelotti settle on the 4-3-3, rather than the 4-2-3-1 he looked set to use after Isco’s summer arrival.
Real Madrid paid an eye-watering amount to bring the Welshman to La Liga from Tottenham Hotspur after he enjoyed a hugely successful final season in North London, and the flying winger has gone on to show that he was anything but a one-season wonder.
A similar player to Cristiano Ronaldo in terms of his goals from the flank and incredible athleticism, Bale has enjoyed an excellent season after a slow start and has looked every bit the world-class player that Madrid broke the bank for. Some early criticism of his performances in big games were duly blown away when he scored a quite magnificent goal to win the Copa del Rey in the final against Barcelona, and he’ll be second only to Ronaldo on the list of Real’s most dangerous players.
"Not a striker who can win you the Champions League" was the verdict of Joaquin Maroto, a respected Spanish journalist, on Karim Benzema in the summer. Prior to this season, it looked like a perfect summation of a problem player for Real Madrid, but with Gonzalo Higuain sold, Benzema has improved and could indeed win the biggest prize in Europe. In a year, he’s gone from a horribly out-of-form flop to a key player in Carlo Ancelotti’s side.
He’s still not the most prolific striker in the world — he has just under a goal every two games in all competitions this season — but with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale in support, Madrid are hardly reliant on him for goals. Of that front trio, he’s clearly the least dangerous, but still a player that Atlético can ill-afford to ignore. If they can start by isolating him, they might be able to get somewhere.
There’s probably less left to say about Cristiano Ronaldo than any other player on earth. As the current Ballon D’Or holder, he is the greatest player on the planet at the moment and capable of winning any game single-handedly. Finding a way to stop him is next to impossible due to his physical prowess and ludicrous goal-scoring ability, as well as his remarkable versatility, but Atlético will have to try regardless. Added onto all that, he’s a big-game performer to boot. He’s played in two Champions League finals before, but only won it once, scoring in the final but missing in the shootout as Manchester United defeated Chelsea. Is it time for a Ronaldo final? If he is allowed to play his game, Atlético have no chance.
Lopez has been a solid player for a very long time, but he's a bit of a late bloomer. He didn't become first choice for Villarreal until he was 25 and was only brought to Real Madrid as an emergency signing after Iker Casillas broke his hand.
Real's co-starting goalkeeper has been left out in favor of Casillas for Champions League games, and that's highly unlikely to change. If Carlo Ancelotti doesn't think there's much difference between his two goalkeepers, he's actually done a pretty decent job of diffusing a messy situation by having different keepers for different competitions, but Lopez probably isn't pleased that he's not starting the final.
It’s not all gone according to plan for Raphaël Varane since the young French defender moved to Real Madrid three years ago. The main worry was that a youngster would find playing time hard to come by in the ranks of a team so focused on winning at all costs. But after being thrust into a two-legged Clasico in the Copa del Rey last season, Varane put in a pair of stunning performances in both legs, even managing to score a goal in each game. It looked like a star had been born.
Unfortunately for the Frenchman, since then, things haven’t gone well. Thanks to injury, he’s been limited to 22 appearances this season and has fallen out of favour under the Ancelotti regime, with his form suffering as a result. Pepe's injury looks to have forced his manager’s hand for this match, however, and Varane is now expected to start alongside Sergio Ramos. With his big-game experience, he's certainly not a bad backup to have.
At some point, Real Madrid realized they were casting off players from Castilla too early, then paying hilariously high fees to bring them back to the team when they got good. So, they started inserting buy-back clauses when they sold young players, which was a really good idea. They let Dani Carvajal go to Bayer Leverkusen a couple years ago, then bought him back for just over €1m more than they paid for him when he turned out to be good. Not too bad.
Carvajal will probably be first choice over Alvaro Arbeloa next season, but the veteran is likely to get the nod at right back this time around. It's unfortunate for those who care about fun more than defense, but Arbeloa is a better defender than Carvajal at this point in his career.
Coentrão's had a bit of an odd career. He was used as both a left back and left midfielder at Benfica, could never beat out Marcelo for a spot in Real's starting lineup and was strangely used for a decent period of time at central midfield by Jose Mourinho. He nearly left in the summer, but stuck around despite being second choice and continues to be a backup.
He's a good deputy for Marcelo and makes a decent defensive winger if Ancelotti feels like he needs to go negative for whatever reason, but he probably won't see any time in the Champions League final unless Marcelo gets hurt.
Germans will be crossing their fingers that Khedira both gets some time in the Champions League final and doesn't break anything in the process. He's fought back from an ACL tear to get into Germany's preliminary World Cup squad, but he still has to prove he's fit enough to play 90 minutes at the highest level. He played 63 minutes over the weekend, though, so he's on his way.
If Khedira is fit enough to play a big part in the final, he's an intriguing option for Ancelotti. Conceivably, he could start with Modric moving to Alonso's position, but he'll probably come off the bench. And if he does, his work rate and athleticism could see Gabi pressed into submission.
22-year-old Isco is part of the new breed of number tens. Creative enough to steer the attack but with the tactical discipline to play a role in the team's defensive shape, Isco was brought in from Malaga to replace the rather more one-dimensional Mesut Ozil and bring a bit more balance into the Real team. That was the intent, at any rate.
In reality, it didn't quite work — shortly into the season injuries and the club's indifferent form forced Carlo Ancelotti to ditch his 4-2-3-1 for the now-standard 4-3-3, with Angel di Maria supplanting Isco in the starting lineup by early January. Don't expect to see much of the youngster unless Real are chasing the game and need to chip away at Atlético's defence.
At one point in their careers, Alvaro Morata and Jese Rodriguez were considered prospects on equal footing. Then Jese started banging in goals and Morata started missing sitters. He was criticized heavily by Madrid fans, who were upset whenever he got playing time ahead of Jese. Then Jese tore his ACL, and Madrid fans got behind him simply because they had to. He's the only backup forward they have.
Even if Morata's finishing is suspect, his talent is undeniable and he has nine goals in 33 appearances, with a huge chunk of those being substitute appearances. He's not an ideal sub for Ancelotti, but if Karim Benzema goes down or is simply having a bad game, Madrid could do a whole lot worse. Morata has the ability to make a serious difference if he enters the match.
Atlético Madrid Players
Thibaut Courtois has long been touted as one of the best young goalkeepers in the world, a status he earned not long after Chelsea bought him from Genk at the age of 19, but he's long been more than a prospect. Courtois is one of the best goalkeepers in the world, period. With Petr Cech blocking his way at Chelsea, Courtois was loaned to Atlético Madrid and he's spent the last two seasons backstopping Atlético Madrid to remarkable success. A year ago, they captured Copa del Rey and this season, they won the league. That there’s an overlap of their rise to such heights and the arrival of Courtois is no coincidence.
Courtois is the prototypical goalkeeper, standing 6'6'', with long arms and great reflexes. He has no fear coming off of his line, doing an excellent job collecting crosses and cutting out opponents' chances before they become too much of a danger. He captured his second consecutive Zamora Trophy this season and has been so good that Chelsea may jettison Cech to make way for Courtois. Already in the best goalkeeper in the world conversation, Courtois may dominate it for the next 15 years too.
Juan Francisco Torres Belén, better known as Juanfran, is Atlético Madrid's 29-year-old right back. He's an offensive minded fullback, who began his career as a winger with Real Madrid. He made a name for himself at Osusana from 2006 to 2011, joining Atléti during the summer and quickly becoming a mainstay at right back.
Juanfran is a speedy fullback, strong in one-on-one situations, more than capable of getting forward and joining the attack. Like most of Atléti's defenders, he has a role in Diego Simeone's system and plays that role to exacting standards. Thanks to an efficient and organized formation, Juanfran is able to get forward at will, supported defensively by the winger ahead of him on the pitch.
He's not a suffocating, shutdown type of defender, and while he will close down and pressure wide attackers, Atléti's system is designed to rely on the overall strength of their central defenders and goalkeeper. He'll let you make the cross, knowing that the odds are good that either Diego Godín or João Miranda will deal with the ball, and help start a counter attack.
28-year-old Uruguayan central defender Diego Godín was signed by Atlético Madrid in 2010 and immediately became a regular in the starting lineup. After being paired with João Miranda in 2011, the two began forging a partnership that has developed into one of the best in football.
Godín is tall, strong, and excellent in the air, along with being a defensive bulldog. His tenacity is well known, especially after an incident earlier in the season when he gestured to teammates that Lionel Messi was hurt and that they should take advantage, and finish him.
Godín and Miranda work together seamlessly, covering one another in the middle and making sure one is always backing up the other. Godín tends to be the more adventurous of the two, getting forward at times, especially on set pieces. His first responsibility however is to stay central, keep the ball in front of him, and clear out anything that comes into the Atléti box.
João Miranda is one of the most unfortunate players to have missed out on a trip to this summer's World Cup, with the 29-year-old Brazilian only on Luiz Felipe Scolari's standby list for the Seleção's home tournament. That's despite Miranda having been at the heart of what has almost certainly been the most effective defensive unit in domestic football over the last season, in a centre-back partnership with Uruguayan Diego Godín.
Despite only arriving back in the European game from São Paulo at the relatively elderly age of 26 — having previously had a very short and unsuccessful spell at French club Sochaux — Miranda has adapted excellently, playing an important role and picking up winner's medals in all of Atléti’s recent successes. He’s impressed so much that he was not long ago linked with both Barcelona and Manchester United, with his superb defensive play and aerial ability making him a valuable asset.
28-year-old left back Filipe Luís has been with Atlético Madrid since the summer of 2010. He's your traditional, modern fullback with good speed, the ability to get forward and cross the ball, along with being a solid one on one defender.
Luís is a stronger crosser than Juanfran on the right wing, and is capable of whipping the ball into the box with both power and accuracy. Simeone loves to combine his overlapping runs with Koke cutting inside, causing all sorts of confusion for covering defenders do they track inside with the midfield or stick with Luís' run down the wing? He's integral to Simeone's counter attacking system, but no slouch from a defensive perspective.
Just like Juanfran, he's happy to challenge attackers when needed, but will often lay back inviting a cross rather than risk someone getting around him on the wing. It's all about pushing the ball towards the center, ideally in the air, so Miranda and Godín can clean things up and start the break.
Gabriel Fernández Arenas — Gabi to his friends — is the captain of Atético Madrid, and their midfield engine as well. Gabi came up through Atléti’s youth system, spent three seasons with the senior side before leaving for Real Zaragoza for four seasons. He returned to the club in 2011, one of the first signings made by Diego Simeone.
Simeone wanted Gabi to anchor his system, and he's been a regular in the defensive midfield over the past three season. Typically partnered with Mario Suarez or Tiago Mendes, Gabi is the more aggressive of the two deeper midfielders in the Atléti formation, tasked with pressing forward in an effort to fill up the middle of the pitch and disrupt the opponent's attack.
His work rate is superb, combining with his defensive midfield partner and the two wingers to create a congested midfield that's difficult to pass through. While there's no doubt that he's the team's on-field leader, Gabi knows where he needs to be in Simeone's formation, along with what his responsibilities are. Just like every other Atléti player.
While in Real Madrid’s system the central midfielders are often crucial in carrying the ball into the final third and picking the killer pass, their role in Atléti’s team is rather different. Tiago is one such example, epitomising the need for absolute tactical discipline and defensive concentration. Though he was often used in rotation with Mario Suárez in the early part of the season, the Portuguese veteran has started three of Atléti’s last four Champions League matches.
Most often partnering the slightly younger, more creative and energetic Gabi, Tiago usually sits deepest of the midfield duo. While Gabi will be drawn out to press Real Madrid’s deeper midfielders, Tiago will likely shield behind and be tasked with the difficult challenge of keeping Ángel di María quiet. In the attacking phase, expect his distribution to be simple and quick, with both Atléti’s central players looking to feed the ball to their front four as soon as possible.
Arda Turan is finally making good on his considerable raw ability. Once touted as an incredible young talent and pegged to be one of Europe's best players, Turan stagnated, becoming a good player, but well short of what people expected of him. He spent years at Galatasaray, a club most figured would be no more than a short stop on Turan's way to one of the world's biggest, but when he made the move to Atlético Madrid in 2011, he finally started to make the leap people expected him to much earlier.
Turan's creativity has never been in question, as he sees passes few do and has the technique to pull it off, but he no longer gets pushed off the ball or drifts out of matches. He comes in to get the ball, gets forward and helps initiate the deadly Atlético attack.
Atlético are a great counter-attacking team and that is where they do most of their damage, but they can struggle when teams get men behind the ball against him. That is where Turan comes in handy, giving them a player who can break down packed in defenses. Turan will also play his part in the counter-attack, often finding the ball on delayed runs into the box, but it is his work when the pace slows that makes him so valuable to the La Liga champions.
Raúl Garcia is probably the least talked about member of Atléti's first choice starting XI, but that doesn't make him unimportant. He's regularly picked ahead of David Villa and Diego because of his willingness to do whatever's asked of him and the lack of holes in his game. He grades out as a B in just about every aspect of his game, but an A in nothing. It makes him a perfect role player for Simeone.
What Garcia lacks in Villa's poacher's mentality or Diego's creativity, he makes up for in work rate and understanding of his manager's system. He can always be counted on for a good defensive effort, he doesn't give the ball away cheaply and he usually makes very good decisions. He's also not a bad finisher when he gets a chance — he has nine La Liga goals this season.
He's wanted by most of the big clubs in Europe, but the impending sale of Diego Costa could keep Koke at Atléti for another season beyond this one. The 22-year-old is one of the most versatile young attacking midfielders in the world, and his performances this season could get him a spot on Spain's World Cup squad.
There are no discernible holes in Koke's game. He usually operates as a left winger, but has played as a central attacking midfielder and in the middle of the pitch as well. As Atléti's left winger, he's enough of an attacking threat to keep opposing fullbacks mindful of him, but contributes to their ability to narrow the pitch defensively. He can help them keep the ball to kill off a game, dribble by his defender, pick out a through ball or shoot with both feet. His ceiling is limitless.
Once one of the most feared strikers on the planet, a broken leg in 2011 cost David Villa his place in the Barcelona side. Most players cast off by the Catalans would not expect to move up in the world, and it's difficult to imagine Villa expecting to be where he is after an August 2013 move took him to the Vicente Calderon. Atlético Madrid paid Barcelona a reported €5.1 million for the forward, an astonishing figure considering he had commanded a €40 million transfer fee three years prior.
At Atlético, Villa has been firmly in Diego Costa's shadow. His strike partner has been scoring at such an absurd rate that it's almost possible to forget about Villa's numbers (13 goals in 30 league games, none in Europe). But with Costa injured and set to miss the final, it will be the consummate poacher who'll have to step up for Diego Simeone's side. It's difficult to imagine an Atléti player needing any extra motivation to hurt Real Madrid, but Villa's Barcelona history would make winning this match even sweeter for him than for his teammates.
If everything goes well, you will not see Dani Aranzubia on Saturday. With no disrespect intended toward him, if he comes onto the pitch, Real Madrid are probably going to win. Thibaut Courtois is one of the best goalkeepers in the world and Atléti will need all three of their subs to get fresh legs on the pitch. Aranzubia playing is a problem.
He is a pretty darn good backup, though. He's had lots of experience playing for Athletic Bilbao and Deportivo La Coruña, and 34 isn't that old in goalkeeper years. Still, you don't want to see him. Seeing him is bad.
There are perhaps two circumstances in which you might expect to see Toby Alderweireld take to the pitch at the Estadio da Luz. Perhaps Diego Simeone calls upon his Belgian defender if Atlético Madrid are desperately holding onto a lead late in the game and need a big man to help weather the storm — that would obviously be fairly good news, as far as Atléti are concerned.
The other scenario would be less palatable. Injuries anywhere in the back would mean the 25-year-old comes off the bench, and although Alderweireld is a fine defender disrupting Atlético’s back line probably means that Real Madrid win the match. That’s unfortunate for the Belgian, who was excellent with Ajax before making a €7 million summer switch to La Liga, but there’s no shame in being a backup to the likes of Juanfran and Joao Miranda.
Suarez was a bit of a late bloomer, not breaking through with Atlético Madrid until the 2010-11 season. He was loaned out multiple times before being sold to Mallorca with a buyback clause and was brought back at the age of 23. Since then, he's been a key player for the team and has earned a couple of caps for Spain.
Modern football is filled with players who are bigger, stronger and faster than their predecessors without sacrificing technical quality, and in that respect, Suarez is a nearly prototype defensive midfielder. However, Tiago Mendes could be preferred to him in the center. While Tiago is not as athletic as Suarez, he’s considerably more experienced.
Jose Ernesto Sosa
In his extremely odd career, Sosa has never been able to land in an adequate spot. He always appears to be too good for his competition or terribly over his head. He was great at Estudiantes La Plata, then not good enough for Bayern Munich. He impressed on a loan back to Estudiantes and got signed by Napoli, where he wasn't great. He moved on to Metalist Kharkiv, where he was the club's best player. Now he's at Atléti, where he's a decent but not great sub.
It's not easy to discern what Sosa does better than any of Adrian, Diego or Rodriguez, so it would be surprising to see him get into the game. He's kind of an odd compromise between Diego and Rodriguez — more of a wide player than the former, less than the latter. More direct than the former, less than the latter. If Simeone can't decide which of Diego or Rodriguez he'd rather bring on, Sosa might get to play.
Diego was a key player for Atlético Madrid during his loan spell in the 2011-12 season, but he’s played a reduced role since joining the team permanently. The playmaker doesn’t even make the bench for all of the team’s big games, but is likely to get a spot in the 18-man squad with Diego Costa out … unless Diego Simeone opts for an extra defender on the bench instead.
The Brazilian’s best years have come in the Bundesliga for Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg, while he’s struggled a bit in Serie A and La Liga. Still, he’s got a knack for the spectacular, and Atléti are in this position because of his stunning long-range goal against Barcelona. If Atléti are in a desperation situation where their only hope is to create a goal from nothing, he’s a good option.
Rodriguez was signed as a first-choice player under a previous manager, and for a team that did not necessarily have Champions League-winning ambitions. He's now very much a bench player, but he brings something different to the table, and is an extremely valuable substitute simply because of that.
Atléti can bring in Adrian, Diego or Jose Sosa to play out wide, but none of them are true wingers. Adrian is a striker, while Diego and Sosa have spent most of their careers as attacking central midfielders. Rodriguez, however, likes to take on his man, run down the touchline and hit crosses. He's not bad at cutting inside and shooting either, and isn't any worse defensively than his fellow subs. He'll come on if either Madrid fullback looks like they can be beaten by a true wide man.
Two years ago, Adrian was a rising star in Spanish football, and was linked to some big sides in the Premier League. Atléti decided not to sell, at least not for a price that anyone was willing to pay, and from a pure business perspective, that wasn't a great idea. He's scored seven goals in the last two seasons combined, compared to his 19 goals in the 2011-12 campaign.
Still, he's a nice option off the bench, either as a forward who's going to work harder than Villa or a wide man who's more likely to score a goal than any of the other options. He was forced into action against Chelsea in the semifinals and was very good, so he might be undergoing a bit of a career revival. If Atléti are down a goal late, expect to see this man.
The Atlético Midfield vs. the Real Midfield
In the end we’ll likely remember the goals or big saves that affect the final scoreline, but the real key to this final will be the battle in midfield. Can Atlético Madrid’s highly organized midfield, with their ridiculously high work rate, buzz around, take up space, and disrupt passing lanes? Or will Real Madrid’s talented trio be able to move the ball fast enough to push into the attacking third before Gabi, Mendes, Turan and Koke can break up their passing?
In both league matches between the two teams, Gabi and friends did their job about as well as you could hope for. They were a disruptive force that prevented Madrid from keeping consistent, meaningful possession, which in turn stopped Madrid from connecting with their attackers.
You really can't expect to shut down the likes of Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema through traditional defending; they're simply too good. The best way to limit their impact is to try to keep the ball away from feet, something Atléti’s system can do by not allowing Madrid the time and space they need to operate.
Atlético Striker(s) vs. Real's Back Line
Whether it's David Villa, Adrián, or both, Atléti will need a big match from their replacement(s) for Diego Costa up front. Both Villa and Adrián are talented attackers in their own right, both have scored big goals in big games in their careers, but they're not Diego Costa.
Fortunately, they don't have to be for Atléti to be successful. No one on Diego Simeone's roster can replicate Costa's play, but that's alright. Simeone and his team have played games without Costa this season, they've won games without him, and they have a week to prepare knowing full well that Costa is likely unavailable.
It's going to be Villa or Adrián’s job to make smart runs, and make sure they’re in the right place when Atléti get chances to counter Madrid. More importantly, they're going to have to bury their chances, and since there's a real chance there might only be a couple really good ones in the match, their finishing will be all the more important.
Madrid's defense is good, but not impenetrable. If Atléti's game plan goes the way Simeone wants, the strikers will have opportunities.
Thibaut Courtois vs. Iker Casillas
While the two starting goalkeepers will not face each other in the traditional sense, they will likely be directly involved in determining who lifts the European Cup. These are two of the best in the world, two men capable of making saves that shouldn't be possible and changing the outcome of games as a result.
In Casillas, you have a keeper with 16 years of experience to call upon. Saint Iker has helped lead Spain to a European Championship and a World Cup. He's won five league titles, two Copa del Reys, and the Champions League twice. He understands the big-game environment, knows how the pressure feels, and has time and again shown the ability to perform under massive pressure.
Courtois, meanwhile, is one of the best young goalkeepers in the world, one well on his way to becoming one of the best overall keepers in the game. He's been stellar during Atléti's Champions League run, but this will likely be the biggest match he's ever played in during his young career. He handled the pressure during last weekend's title decider just fine — the only goal he allowed was basically unstoppable — but he's never been in a situation like he'll experience in Lisbon on Saturday.
In a match that could come down to a single goal, or penalties, a mistake by a goalkeeper could make all the difference.
What to watch for
Atlético Madrid are a physical, hard-nosed defensive team that play a highly organized and compact formation, designed to cut off the space that their opponents are trying to play into. They score goals by taking advantage of the turnovers that their defense causes, hitting teams quickly on the counter before they can recover from the turnover.
It's nothing fancy, but it's amazing how well Simeone has gotten his players to buy into the system. When it works, and it usually does, it's insanely frustrating for fans of the team being shut down, and neutrals hoping for a free-flowing, wide-open match.
You'll know things are going well for Atléti if you're seeing Real struggle to establish themselves in the final third. The more passes from Real players that are being intercepted, the better Atléti's system is working. Their goal will be to clog up the midfield, preventing the likes of Ronaldo and Bale from getting the ball. Atléti will want the majority of Real's possession to be at or behind the midfield line, they will give the Real defenders time on the ball, looking to jump on every pass they try to make to get the ball forward.
Real Madrid will hope they can re-create their Copa del Rey semifinal success against Atléti where they defeated their rivals 5-0 over two legs. Real were able to get an early goal that forced Atléti to open up a bit, giving Real's attackers more space to work into. The more successful the defense is at moving the ball quickly to the midfield, giving them the time they need to find Ronaldo and Bale, the better things will go for Real.
Ancelotti will want his players to grab possession, move the back quickly and accurately, thus preventing Atléti's midfield from being able to disrupt the passing lanes. Even the highest work rate can't be everywhere at once, so quick ball movement will be important for Real. They can't afford to be slow with their decisions and passing, because that will only allow Atléti the time they need to cut off passing lanes.
If you start to see Real changing how they’re trying to passing through the midfield, they’re probably in trouble. They’ll likely begin the match doing what they always do by trying to work the ball through Di María or Modrić to either Bale or Ronaldo, making runs on the wings. If Atléti are able to consistently cut off those passes, or start causing a lot of turnovers, Real could get frustrated.
Should Real start to look like they’re stuck in the midfield, passing the ball sideways rather than forwards, essentially treading water and trying to avoid turnovers rather than feeling comfortable playing their usual aggressive game, that a very bad sign for Los Blancos.
Ultimately, this is a match between two teams who know one another extremely well, whose styles of play look very different, while still being similar. Simeone has built a system specifically designed to deal with the raw attacking power of Real Madrid and Barcelona. He's also built a team capable, and willing, to play that system. Real want to attack, force the opposition to make mistakes, and then pounce on those mistakes with their tremendous speed. They won't suffocate you with a compact, defensive style, but they will create mistakes with their quickness and then attack you just as fast.
All four matches between these two rivals have been a bit different this season, making predicting exactly what will happen on Saturday difficult. Will we see a lopsided Real victory similar to the Copa del Rey semifinal tie? Will will get a more open, back and forth match, like the 2-2 draw in early March? In all likelihood, the answer is that we will see a match that more closely resembles the two sides’ first league meeting in late September where Atléti won 1-0.
Major cup finals are not generally known for their open play No one is going to want to make the big mistake that costs their team a trophy. That can often leads to an unappealing match for the neutrals and an unbelievably tense one for fans with a horse in the race. Don’t expect this one to deviate far from that script. The play will likely be tight, with limited space leading to limited chances on goal. Defending will be vital, as will the goalkeeping, and being able to take advantage of the inevitable mistake could prove the difference between winning and losing.
That sounds like just the type of match that Diego Simone's team likes to play.
Contributors: Zach Woosley, Kevin McCauley, Andi Thomas, Ryan Rosenblatt, Jack Sargeant, Callum Hamilton, Graham MacAree Editors: Jeremiah Oshan, Graham MacAree, Kevin McCauley Design / Development: Ramla Mahmood, Josh Laincz Product Manager: Chris Haines