It is not just a fight between two cross-town rivals as Real Madrid get ready to take on Atletico Madrid in Milan on Saturday, but a Marxian class struggle that has plagued the Spanish capital’s football scene ever since the early 20th century.
Real Madrid have always represented the upper strata of the Madrid society, with their name (Real = Royal) suggesting just as much. However, Atletico, who are also known as Los Colchoneros (or the carpetmakers), represent the proletariat side of the narrative. However, unlike two years ago, both sides will go into this match as equals.
The former French World Cup winner has been a revelation as the manager of Real Madrid this season. Los Blancos were completely down and out when he took over as the manager of the club. However, Zidane completely turned things around and took Real close to winning a double this season, ending up just one point behind Barcelona in the league at the end of the season.
Real Madrid are a side that have a lot of pace and players who can run riot among the opposition defence if given the space. Especially with forwards like Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, and a bombing fullback like Marcelo, they are a huge threat on the counter-attack. However, Zidane is unlikely to rely much on his side’s pace, as Atletico are not a side who attack their opponents too much.
Control of the midfield is key to this match and Zidane will realise the importance of the role that Luka Modric has to play against Atleti. The Croat has a range of different passes in his repertoire and will be looking to use his full range to feed the Real Madrid forwards. Mordic will be the focal point of the Real Madrid build-up play during this match.
Another key man for Real Madrid is Casemiro. The Brazilian midfielder may not be as good on the ball as some of his teammates, but his ability to sniff out dangerous situations and nip them in the bud makes him an indispensable member of the starting XI.
The Argentine has completely revolutionised Atletico Madrid’s fortunes over the last few years, taking them from being a side challenging for the European spots to a team who are serious title contenders. Although Real Madrid finished just one point behind Barcelona in the La Liga table, it was Atletico who provided the real competition to the Catalans for the title for most parts of the season.
Simeone will be looking for a great deal of discipline from his side in Saturday’s final. He will use the 2014 loss at the hands of the same opposition as a key motivation tool for his players. Last time out, most of the Atletico players had never been a part of such a big match and perhaps the occasion got the better of them towards the end.
Now however, most of them know what a Champions League final against their arch rivals is all about. They have all learnt from the excruciating defeat two years back, and will be looking to get their revenge.
Atletico are not a side that focus on possession, which is why it is very important for them to keep their discipline intact. While they will let Real hog possession of the ball, their two strikers will look to pin down the two Real centre-backs. Atleti are likely to be outnumbered in the middle of the park, which is why they will try to switch the play to the wings whenever they get the chance. They will also try to take advantage of Marcelo, who at times can be a little slow to get himself back into position after an overlapping run.
Key battles on the pitch
Pepe/Marcelo vs Antoine Griezmann
Antoine Griezmann is an integral part of Atletico Madrid’s attack. While Fernando Torres plays as the central striker, Griezmann will be looking to run the channels and exploit the gaps that the Real Madrid defenders leave open. The Frenchman will also look to make a number of runs towards the wings in order to find more space to cross the ball into the box.
The fact that Marcelo is often caught out of position (especially on the counter attacks) means that Griezmann will be trying to exploit whatever space he gets on Atletico’s right flank. Pepe will have to work doubly hard if he wants to keep the Atletico counter-attacks in check.
Luka Modric/Casemiro vs Koke/Gabi
The battle of Milan is most likely to be settled in midfield. Both sides will try to gain control of the midfield throughout the match. However, control of the midfield does not mean the same as having the lion’s share of the ball. For Real Madrid, it would mean Modric dictating the play with the help of Kroos, and spraying passes all around the park.
For Atletico Madrid however, control of the midfield means a completely different thing. Since they will be outnumbered in the middle of the park, possession is not a luxury they will worry about. Instead they will be looking to keep their shape and press the Real Madrid players throughout their defensive third of the pitch. Proper zonal marking is the need of the hour for them. Forcing Real Madrid to play more passes away from goal will be the key for Atletico.
Cristiano Ronaldo vs Juanfran
All it may take to get the win in this one-off match on Saturday is one moment of brilliance, and Cristiano Ronaldo is certainly capable of providing that one magic moment to his side. However, the Portuguese is trying to recover from a minor injury that he picked up during a practice session on Tuesday. If he is fully fit, Ronaldo can run riot in the Atletico half.
However, the Portuguese star will be up against Juanfran, who will not give him an inch during the game. Juanfran will have to deal with the dual threat of Ronaldo and Marcelo bombing down Real’s left flank. The 31-year-old has shown against Barcelona and against Bayern Munich that he can hold firm under immense pressure. In fact, the right-back managed to keep Brazil star Neymar quiet over the duration of the two legs in the quarter-final of the Champions League.