2016 UEFA Champions League Final Preview: El Derbí Rematch

Not two years ago, the FIFA Club of the Century, Real Madrid, faced off against their lesser known rival, Atlético Madrid. The result ended dramatically, as Real Madrid center back Sergio Ramos scored an equalizing goal in the 93rd minute of play. Real went on to score three more goals in extra time to seal their tenth Champions League title, La Décima. The rivalry might be eclipsed by “El Clásico,” but Atlético de Madrid and their big neighbors have been fiercely going at it for 88 years.

Rivalry Renewed
Rivalry Renewed.

Real Madrid has a reputation that precedes itself: 10 Champions League victories (the most of any club), 32 La Liga titles and countless mega-stars throughout the years, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham. Meanwhile, at the more humble Vicente Calderón Stadium, Atlético de Madrid has developed some of the world’s premier strikers, such as Diego Forlán, Sergio Agüero, Radamel Falcao, Fernando Torres, Diego Costa and more.

Their individual differences as clubs define their rivalry. Real Madrid is known as being the favorite of the Franco regime, and was associated with the establishment and the upper class. Meanwhile Atlético always considered themselves to be the anti-establishment club — the leftist club of Madrid. Atlético would play second fiddle to the biggest club in the world, as Real Madrid would go on to win just about every trophy and accolade possible, earning millions of dollars and the support of the Spanish government. The fans of Atlético tend also to be more from a working class background and are proud of that perception. For decades, Real would dominate the so-called feeder club for Europe’s elite.

How things have changed.

Having won La Liga two years ago, and making their second Champions League final in three years,”Atletí” is no longer a feeder club. On Saturday, the two Madrid clubs will meet yet again in Milan.

Madrid's Managers Have Instilled Their Own Philosophies Within Their Respective Sides
Madrid’s managers have instilled their own philosophies within their respective sides.

The road to the final for each side has been paved quite differently. Atlético has faced the world’s best in Barcelona and Bayern Munich, and through their self described “ugly” style of football, defeated both clubs. Real Madrid on the other hand had an easier route to the final, having to battle less dominant squads such as Wolfsburg and Manchester City.

Many would not have picked Real to get this far, however. Their season was mired with the hiring and firing of manager Rafa Benitez, who could not command respect in the locker room, and was afraid to bench out-of-form players such as James Rodriguez. Real Madrid’s season took a turn for the better when world football legend Zinedine Zidane was promoted to manager. By getting players like Isco and Casemiro to commit to specific roles in the club, Zidane helped get Real from a double-digit point deficit to La Liga champions Barcelona to being just one point short at the end of the season.

The players undoubtedly respect Zidane’s decisions given his status at the club, and are committed to his style, which has implemented a defensive-midfield destroyer (Casemiro), and two holding midfielders who can both attack and defend (Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić). The front three of Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale have benefitted from the change of style, as the star wingers have more space to work with centrally. In addition, the use of right back Dani Carvajal over the much maligned Danilo has provided the supersonic Gareth Bale with a pacy defender to both track back on defense and provide a devastating link on attack. How “Los Blancos” will line up in Milan is yet to be determined, but we will explore their best options against the hyper-defensive Atlético later in this preview.

Madrid's Welsh Import Celebrates the Winner Versus Manchester City in the Champions League Semi-Final
Madrid’s Welsh import celebrates the winner versus Manchester City in the Champions League semi-final.

Diego Simeone, Atlético’s supremely defensive-minded manager has managed to inspire his less talented squad to reach unprecedented heights. Many thought the 2014 Champions League final appearance was a fluke, but they have proven that is certainly not the case.

Atlético have perfected the art of parking the bus. Their physicality is unmatched by any club in the world.

Despite losing world class defender Miranda, Atlético bounced back with he re-addition of left back Filipe Luis and the improved play of Stefan Savic and José Giménez. These three, alongside Diego Godín and keeper Jan Oblak, have provided Simeone with bone-crunching tackles and aerial superiority inside the box. On top of this, the defensive midfielders oftentimes have acted as fifth, sixth and even seventh defenders after Atlético goals.

But the key to Atlético’s success is not just the defensive mindedness of the club, but also the menacing counterattack of Antoine Griezmann, Fernando Torres, Yannick Carrasco and Koke.  The club usually catches opposition pressing extremely highly up, and will release three attackers: Torres provides the hold-up play and can rely on the world-class Griezmann to come up with a way to score. The French international has become the latest star striker to be developed by the club, and his pairing with Atlético legend turned reject, Fernando Torres, is a sight to behold. Atlético’s dedication to defense and the counterattack will likely produce the same lineup in the Final that has been felling super-clubs like Bayern and Barca this year.

Antoine Griezmann Celebrates One of His Two Goals to Knock off Defending Champions, Barcelona
Antoine Griezmann celebrates one of his two goals to knock off defending champions, Barcelona.

How will each club line up this saturday?

Atlético de Madrid:

Atlético's XI
Atlético’s XI

Atlético will stay defensive versus one of the world’s most dangerous attacks in Real Madrid.The club will start four defensive midfielders and relying upon Fernando Torres to hold up play for the full backs and Griezmann. They will continue to rely on defense to defeat Los Blancos, and if they score early look to see all eleven starters parked behind the midfield line. If they go down early, look to see Yannick Carrasco come on to provide pace on the wing and in attack.

Real Madrid:

Real Madrid XI
Real Madrid XI

Zidane will have to employ the services of the defensive midfielder, Casemiro to provide the team with balance. While not a “galactico” like James, he ensures defensive help and can win balls in the midfield like no one else in the team. Kroos and Modrić will help provide vision and accurate passes for the potent attack of Bale Benzema and Cristiano. With the help of attacking minded full backs Marcelo and Dani Carvajal, Atlético Madrid will have plenty to deal with defensively. The center backs remain the same, and the Costa Rican sensation Keylor Navas, will seek to prove himself yet again on the world stage, as his form only grows by the day.

Final prediction: Atlético score first, Real equalize.

Real Madrid def. Atlético de Madrid, 1-1 (6-5) on penalties.