On Saturday evening, the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon will play host to the biggest game in the domestic calendar – the Champions League final.
As no doubt you’ll know by now, the two sides doing battle to lift the coveted European Champion Clubs Cup are two arch rivals from the city of Madrid: Atletico and Real.
Only a short time ago, the result of this fixture would be regarded as a foregone conclusion. It would be seen as highly implausible that Atletico – so often the underdog in comparison to the might of Real and Barca – could even go toe to toe with a team as great as Real.
This is not the case this year.
Diego Simeone has worked wonders at Vicente Calderon, and via a battling 1-1 draw with Barcelona last week, the Argentine led Atletico to their first La Liga title since 1996. The achievement of prising apart the duopoly of Spain’s two biggest clubs is not a feat that should be underestimated: this was the first time that the Spanish title had been won by a club other than Read or Barca since 2004.
The question is, can Simeone rally his troops enough for them to deliver what would have seemed impossible at the beginning of the season: a Champions League title?
In truth, it would be churlish to write Atletico off at this stage. Madrid’s second biggest team have shown that they’ve got what it takes to win the biggest games, ruthlessly disposing of Chelsea in the semifinal to set up their clash with Real in Lisbon.
Despite the way that Simeone’s side swept to the La Liga title, they are not billed as favourites for their clash with Carlo Ancelotti’s expensively assembled outfit. Most bookmakers are tipping Real to win the clash, and to reach their most holy of grails:
Ever since Real defeated Bayer Leverkusen in 2002 to win their ninth Champions League crown, the focus has been on La Decima. But in truth, the intervening years have not brought them particularly close to it. There have been a few semifinal appearances sure, but the reality is that Los Blancos have spectacularly underachieved in Europe in this period. For every Madrid fan, this is an opportunity to make up for that underachievement.
This is an opportunity to make history, and not just by extending their record success by winning a tenth title, but in so doing, defeat their bitter rivals in the first ever final featuring two teams from the same city.
And so to the football. Those hoping for a footballing feast will be hoping that Real can exert some dominance, as the likelihood of Atletico going hell for a leather with a display of attacking football is as close to zero as you’re ever likely to get. This will be a true contrast of the styles: one team, a fluid, exciting and pacy unit, the other a tactically drilled, defensively sound collective. In short, it’s attack against defence, and whichever side is able to do what they do best most effectively is likely to run out as the winner.
There are subplots though. Perhaps Atletico’s most potent weapon Diego Costa is likely to miss out, and the adopted Spaniard leaves a huge hole in the centre forward position. Similarly for Real, Xabi Alonso’s suspension has ruled him out of the game in Lisbon, and given how pivotal the midfielder is to Real’s gameplan, his absence is likely to be keenly felt.
One of the most wonderful things about this matchup is that despite what the bookmakers say, it really is too difficult to call. On the day both sides can beat each other, and that makes this final the most unpredictable since Chelsea took on Manchester United in Moscow in 2008.
One thing is for sure, though; the stage is set for one man who featured on that night in Russia: Cristiano Ronaldo. In his home country, Ronaldo has the opportunity to make history yet again. Not only has the Portuguese managed a quite astonishing 16 goals in the competition this season – setting a new all-time record in the process – but he also has the opportunity to propel his beloved Los Merengues into footballing folklore.
Whatever happens on Saturday evening, one thing’s for sure: this season’s competition has been one of the greatest in its history, and either side would be worthy winners of the most coveted trophy in European football. May the best team win.
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