So it’s all been leading up to this. Real and Atletico Madrid. Mr and Mrs Madrid. Like a married couple. Twice in three years, after all.
What’s interesting – when you view this final on the feel of the two clubs this season – is that Atletico probably edge the favourite tag. That’s the feel, not necessarily the reality. But Atleti have played one way all season, and that one way has seen them challenge for a Liga title and reach the final of the Champions League, overcoming some brutal ogres along the way.
Real, meanwhile, have sacked a manager this season. They’ve been poor at times, but they’ve been magnificent at times, too. They’ve certainly been much more erratic than their cross-city rivals. You would certainly trust Atletico more.
But Atletico have had some ropey moments on their route to this year’s final, too. A 0-0 draw in the faraway lands of Kazakhstan and a 2-1 defeat at home to Benfica was as bad as the group stages got as Atleti topped their group.
The last 16 was harder to negotiate as Diego Simeone’s men were drawn against PSV Eindhoven. That game reestablished Atleti’s credentials as the most solid team in European football – 0-0 over two legs without PSV ever looking like scoring. Yet Atleti couldn’t score themselves and had to rely on a penalty shootout to progress.
The form of Fernando Torres has been a great help since then. Big money signings last summer, Luciano Vietto and Jackson Martinez, haven’t hit the heights expected – Martinez was sold to China for an obscene fee – and Atleti’s struggle for goals in the early stages saw them rely on the defence.
But from the quarter final onwards, Simeone has been able to rely on his pacey attack creating problems for big teams whilst keeping them out with seriously disciplined defending. Barcelona were put to the sword in this way, as were Bayern Munich. You just trust Atletico Madrid to stick to the gameplan and execute Simeone’s tactics perfectly.
Real Madrid, on the other hand, don’t seem to be like that. And yet they’ve conceded fewer goals in the Champions League this season than Atletico have. The feel doesn’t always match up to the reality.
And despite conceding fewer, they’ve scored more. Much more.
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And yet on the way to the final, Real Madrid didn’t have to overcome an awful lot. Only a 0-0 draw away to PSG blotted their group stage copybook – every other group game ended in a Real Madrid victory. And then Roma – who had chances to reverse that 4-0 aggregate result – and Wolfsburg who capitulated after realising just how close they were to victory after their 2-0 first leg victory. Though the comeback – the remontada – was due as much to the brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo as to the poverty of Wolfsburg’s defending.
Real didn’t have to do an awful lot to beat Manchester City, either, though they were certainly the better side over the two legs. A pedestrian 1-0 aggregate victory took Real to yet another Champions League final, setting them up for the Undecima, their 11th triumph.
Now only Atletico Madrid stand in their way – but it is by far the hardest test they’ve had in this season’s competition. It feels as if Atletico should be the favourites, they seem like the most trustworthy of the two teams. But it also feels like Real are favourites, they’re just the bigger, more experienced side.
And in the end, it’s a final. Finals are emotional games, they aren’t like normal games. And there’s just something about Real Madrid and the European Cup.