The Guiseppe Meazza, more commonly called the San Siro, is home to two of football’s most prestigious teams: Inter and AC Milan. This weekend, it will host a clash between two city rivals, but it won’t be the two Italian giants facing off against one another. Instead, the finalists are once again the two clubs from another European capital; Madrid. For the second time in the last three years Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid will contest a UEFA Champions League final, and this time Atletico will hope to stand up to the pressure that Real’s star studded attack can create. Atletico managed to finish just two points behind Real in La Liga this year, and the gulf between the teams is likely to be equally minute in Saturday’s final. We’re going to take a closer look at the two teams in our preview of the most prestigious club final in European football.
The managers of the respective clubs used to go toe-to-toe on the pitch, but Diego Simeone won’t be trying to win possession off Zinedine Zidane this weekend. Simeone, despite his relatively young age, has accrued a wealth of managerial experience since his first managerial post with Racing Club in Argentina back in 2006. He managed a host of teams in Argentina before eventually making his way back to Atletico; a club where he’d been a fan favourite over two separate playing spells. On the other hand, Zinedine Zidane, while a legend on the field, has yet to fully have his managerial mettle tested. He’s done a fantastic job getting this Real Madrid team into the final, but Simeone’s resilient tactical set-up and the physicality his Atletico team play with will serve to be Zidane’s toughest test in his brief managerial stint.
When the two teams played in the 2013/14 Champions League final, Atletico did an admirable job of holding off Real’s merciless attacking pressure, only to crumble in the dying minutes and concede a glut of goals in extra time. For a club of their relatively humble stature, to have reached the final was an immense achievement. To achieve it twice in such a short space of time establishes them as being closer to Real in terms of playing level than they’ve ever been. One could even argue that because Atletico’s young crop of players have had another season to develop while Real’s aging squad has remained largely static that Atletico may have the upper hand in this final.
It might be tempting to compare the two teams on their league goal scoring record to make a prediction about the result, but the massive difference could be quite misleading. Real Madrid managed to score 110 goals while Atletico managed almost half that at 63. So, Real can score – we’ve known that for some time, but they also have a habit of conceding. Atletico have by far the superior defensive record; having only conceded 18 to Real’s 34. These statistics indicate that while Real are free scoring due to their extremely talented front line, they are also susceptible to conceding more frequently than their city neighbours. However, Real have managed 10 clean sheets in the Champions League this season, and they’ll need that improved defensive performance if they are to lift the Champions League trophy again come Saturday evening.
Although Real have the inferior defensive record in La Liga, they’ve been solid in the Champions League, conceding only 5 goals. In addition their keeper, Keylor Navas, has managed to rack up 10 clean sheets throughout the competition, an extremely impressive feat. Atletico on the other hand have only conceded two more goals than Real and their keeper, Jan Oblak, has managed 8 clean sheets – making the keepers relatively equal. Suffice it to say that both teams have competent defenses that have a lot of experience playing together.
Midfield is potentially the one area where Atletico could have a distinct advantage over Real. Real have had frequent difficulty against smaller teams that manage to outwork them in midfield, suffering unusual draws or the occasional defeat. Atletico have a hard working and skillful set of midfielders in Koké, Gabi and Saúl Ñiguez. They’re exactly the kinds of midfielders that have given Real trouble in the past. While Real have talented midfielders in abundance, Luka Modric is the only name among them that offers any energy or dynamism or defensive work ethic. Toni Kroos, Isco, and Kovačić are all adept at creating chances, but no great contributors when it comes time to win the ball back.
In terms of attack Real and Atletico have been rather similar. This season Real have been the definition of a one-man team up front, with Cristiano Ronaldo bagging 16 goals, with the next nearest being Karim Benzema on a paltry 4 goals. The same accusation could possibly be leveled at Atletico since Antoine Griezmann has scored 7 of their 16, but it is immediately noticeable when watching Real that if Ronaldo isn’t on song the entire attack tends to lose focus and they rely primarily on individual skill to edge themselves ahead. Atletico on the other hand can grind out chances from multiple sources; the main creator being Koké, and a number of their other forwards and midfielders have chipped in with goals here and there. It’s difficult to discern which team has the advantage in attack, but it won’t go lost on Simeone that if they can shackle Ronaldo a lot of Real’s ability to convert chances will be negated. Atletico meanwhile have a far more rounded attack and can create chances through several players.
If we’re looking for names to isolate that can generate an advantage for their teams then a straight up comparison between Cristiano Ronaldo and Antoine Griezmann seems the most obvious. Both players have been spearheading their respective teams’ attacks all season. Atletico are more likely to be able to score through multiple other forwards like Jackson Martinez, Fernando Torres or Angel Correa while Real only really have Ronaldo and Benzema, as Bale and James Rodriguez have both had somewhat disappointing seasons.
Chinks in the Armour:
Real’s biggest weakness is that they’re not always capable of maintaining positional structure in as disciplined a fashion as is required, while that is one of Atletico’s most praised traits. For Atletico, their inability to score prolifically could be a concern if Real manage to grab an early goal, Atletico simply don’t have the raw attacking talent that Real boast and can’t depend on a moment of individual inspiration to carry them over the finish line.
Just like the fixtures between the two teams in La Liga, this final is likely to be an incredibly close game. Atletico’s defensive and positional discipline are likely to frustrate Real for long periods, but their tendency to have very little possession in comparison to their opposition is likely to result in very few chances being created for their own forwards. Whenever a rare chance does fall to them they’ll need to hope their varied set of forwards make the most of them. While Real have an abundance of talent across the pitch they’ve frequently shown a mental fragility that Atletico could capitalise on. Los Blancos may have an excessive amount of quality, but Atletico have shown over the past few seasons that they don’t pay undue respect to big names, not when hard work could offer just as much benefit.
Who do you think will lift the trophy this weekend, will Zidane lead his team to victory on his maiden voyage?