It's that time again. When we find out which of die besten, les grandes équipes and the champions are the bestest, the grandest and the championest. But unless you have the fortune to be supporting either Atlético or Real Madrid, then presumably you, the neutral, are trapped in limbo. Who to hope triumphs? Who to hope has all their dreams crushed, live on television, broadcast to millions?
We at SB Nation Soccer are here to help. Simply think about what it is that you enjoy about football, consult our guide below, and then you'll know whether to get your face painted in red-and-white-stripes, or to have NUMBER ELEVEN tattooed across your forehead.
So, if you like ...
... then Atlético Madrid are probably the team you've been waiting for all your life. When it comes to defending, some teams try to get by with the bare minimum and focus on the other end, while others to dodge the question, seeking refuge in possession. Atlético defend like it's the greatest idea anybody's ever had. They are astoundingly well-organised, they press and sit off as a team, they have the wit to intercept, if that fails they have the timing to tackle, and if that fails then they are perhaps the world's finest exponents of the last-second diving block.
... then Real Madrid's the call. It's not that Atlético are a purely defensive team, it's that Madrid just score more goals. Considerably more goals. Ludicrously more goals. Nearly twice as many than their opponents in both La Liga (110 to 63) and the Champions League (27 to 16). Sixteen, incidentally, is how many goals Cristiano Ronaldo — just Cristiano Ronaldo — has scored in Europe this season; his personal record is 17, which he set deep in injury time against Atlético in 2014.
... then — hang on. That's not a word.
... then you are going to have to support the nil-nil draw and the penalty shootout. The endless penalty shootout that goes on forever, each kick bravely tipped around the post, kicked onto the bar, or fisted back from whence it came.
As to who might win that eternal shootout in the end, once the sun has shrunk to a cold red ball and the cities of men have shrugged themselves into dust, that's a question of taste. Do you prefer the orthodox stylings but immense potential of Jan Oblak, who looks destined to develop into one of the best keepers around? Or would you rather opt for the hyperactive unorthodoxy of Keylor Navas, a rubber ball with arms and legs and absolutely no fear whatsoever.
... then, Mr. Van Gaal, you'll have to go for Real Madrid. Not because they desperately want to dominate the ball — Ronaldo and Bale quite enjoy a good counterattack — but because Atlético absolutely do not want it. They've had less than 30% possession in each of their last four Champions League games and they've eliminated Bayern Munich and Barcelona in the process. If it ain't broke, let the other lot mess about with it until you're ready.
The Dark Arts!
... then it's a tricky one. At this precise point in time, Atlético Madrid are the planet's finest exponents of finding that delicate balance between being destructive and being self-destructive. They are, by and large, physical but not thuggish, committed but not wound-up; one of their greatest strengths is the ability to keep their intensity bubbling but hardly ever boil over. ("Hardly ever." Not "never." They have their moments.)
But on the other side, Pepe, a man who was once sent off for headbutting an opponent while that opponent was sat on the ground. If Atlético are the dark arts refined and controlled, then Pepe is the place where they rage untethered. Most of the time, they make Pepe into an extremely effective, vastly irritating central defender; sometimes, they make him into a snarling ball of unpredictable comedy, farce and violence.
Pick your favourite.
... then all hail the His Majesty Cristiano Ronaldo CR7, by the Grace of Jorge, the Archbrand, the Most Shared, He Who Leverages And Is Leveraged, King Ab, Clickgatherer, Grand Duke of Content and its Dominions.
... then it's very much a matter of taste. Do you prefer meringues or mattresses? (Well, Atlético are los Colchoneros, the mattress-makers, but while we're certain that each and every mattress maker has a rich, well-rounded and fulfilling life beyond their work, that's not entirely relevant here.) Or, more generally, do you prefer dessert or sleeping? You can only choose one.
... then obviously you go with Atlético Madrid. Obviously. Though nobody could describe Atlético as small or poor, they are the pluckiest of plucky upstarts next to the cosmos-distorting white hole that is Real Madrid. Particularly when it comes to European competition: Atlético have never won this tournament, whereas Real, as you might have heard, have won it 10 times.
But. While Real finished two points ahead of Atlético in La Liga, it was Diego Simeone's entertainers who emerged with the better head-to-head record, winning in the Bernabéu and then drawing at home. Atlético have also had by some distance the tougher route to the final, having made their way past favourites Barcelona, then replacement favourites Bayern Munich. So what we might have here is that rarest of creatures: an underdog that is actually better than the overdog. It's close, mind, but there we are.
... then you've a call to make. Last time this happened, there was no contest: "Azerbaijan, Land of Fire" ate "Emirates" alive. Since then, however, Atlético have moved the intimidating cultural and geographical assertion round to the back of the shirt and replaced it with the frankly anodyne "Plus500." We have no idea what they do, and we're not about to look it up. Let's call this one a draw.
Heartwarming tales of redemption!
... then it's no contest really. When Fernando Torres returned to Atlético Madrid, after four laborious years at Chelsea and one forgettable season at AC Milan, it felt like a purely symbolic move. After all, he was basically broken; the pace had slithered out of his game, followed by the joy and the confidence, and while he would doubtless find a role at Atlético as an occasional substitute and, perhaps, a cautionary tale, there was no chance of him actually asserting himself as a footballer again.
Yeah, called that wrong. Though he's not the blonde nightmare he was, and though he has been regularly used as a substitute, he's also started 23 games this season and scored 12 goals in the process. He seems to work nicely as a kind of bustling focal point to Atlético's shape, allowing Antoine Griezmann to buzz around menacingly. Frankly, it's as heartwarming to see as it was unexpected, and after he didn't start in 2012 when Chelsea mugged Bayern Munich (and didn't take a penalty after coming on late), it'd be quite something if he led Atlético into this one. Just don't go getting yourself sent off again, 'Nando.