The first ever all-city UEFA Champions League final kicks off Saturday (live, FOX, 2 p.m. ET) as La Liga champions Atletico Madrid face arch-rivals Real Madrid. It’s a battle of the stars as Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale face off against Thibaut Courtois and David Villa for the grandest prize in club football.
This is a clash between the haves and the have-nots; Real Madrid are by most accounts the world’s richest club; Atletico have long been the scrappy underdogs in their own city. Their stadiums, separated by just four miles, tell the whole story: the Santiago Bernabeu is a glittering edifice that oozes money; the Calderon is a steep, rickety affair with breathtaking views and no amenities whatsoever. Real have long carried themselves with a pride bordering on arrogance, bred out of an expectation that they will win every game. Atletico, on the other hand, are no less passionate, but carry themselves with a sense of humor and epitomize the working-class.
Atletico have been the story of the year, overcoming both the far-more monied Real and Barcelona to clamber atop the Spanish Primera Division for the first time in 18 years. A hard-charging physical side that plays with a storming grace, Atletico have taken themselves past all comers, and should they win Saturday, they will complete their most successful season in 40 years. The last time they were here, they lost to Bayern Munich in what was then the European Cup; this time out they remain unbeaten and can become the first side since Manchester United, and the seventh overall, to lift the trophy without losing a single game.
That grit is encapsulated in their manager, the no-nonsense Diego Simeone. Despite seeing the team shed some of their best and brightest players for financial reasons — Atletico’s books have always been a bit parlous — he has willed them to victory with a focus that borders on the terrifying. The one time he has cracked a smile this past month came when his side dispatched Chelsea in London with aplomb; in typically earthy fashion, he thanked his player’s mothers for having "big balls." His look — slicked back hair, frantic gestures, donnish suits — have made him a figure of parody in some quarters, but that is a mistake. Simeone boasts a keen tactical mind and he has managed to cobble together perhaps the greatest group of overachievers in the modern game.
Real, who finished third, will be looking to finally hoist the fabled "decima": the 10th European Cup that has become an obsession at the club. They haven’t won a European title since 2002 and every year since, the pressure has ratcheted right up. Jose Mourinho was chased out of town for his failure to bring home the bacon, but this year the slick and cultured Carlo Ancelotti appears to have found the right blend. Certainly, Real’s imperious show against the reigning champions, Bayern Munich, has many Real fans thinking this has to be the year. They have no shortage of star power — on paper, one would think this their game to lose — but that isn’t how this season has played out at all.
In fact, Real struggled in their league meetings against Atletico, losing at home and playing to a thrilling draw away. The Copa Del Rey was far more convincing, with Real thrashing an out-of-sorts Atletico 5-0 on aggregate. Atletico plays a very tight and compact midfield quartet, which helps blunt Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel di Maria, negating the advantage Real has out wide. Against the 4-3-3 that Real are likely to show on Saturday, Atletico has often put a body on Luka Modric to try and tame his technical ability, while forcing di Maria further to the inside to take away any effect he might have on the flanks.
One major problem for Real is that Xabi Alonso is suspended for the final, meaning that one of the few Real players who can go man-to-man against Atletico’s tacklers will be watching from the sidelines. Asier Illarramendi is expected to get the start (Sami Khedira is not yet fully fit) and he did not play well in the teamâs past meetings, looking awed by Atletico’s midfield quartet.
Atletico are also facing some major worries. Star striker Diego Costa is facing a battle for fitness after injuring his hamstring and is a big doubt for the game. Playmaker Arda Turan is also a question mark after he was also injured in their title-winning season finale against Barcelona. Turan’s loss is arguably the greater; he is both playmaker and defender, and he and Koke will be tasked with blocking off Real’s marauding fullbacks if healthy. Don’t be shocked to see Mario Suarez used to supply cover ahead of a back four.
Expect both teams to come out blazing. Real are likely to have more of the football — indeed, Atletico will want them to — and look for both teams to try and score early and often. Of all the matchups we have seen in recent years, this Madrid derby could be the most crackling of them all. Come Sunday morning in the wee hours, one set of fans will be celebrating. The question is, will it be at the Cibeles or the Neptuno?