KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —– Milan may provide the venue tonight but Madrid is being unveiled as the real capital of European football with Real and Atletico de Madrid contest the Champions League Final and Spanish federation president Angel Maria Villar, as UEFA’s acting president, lined up to present the trophy.
Atletico, unlike two years ago in Lisbon, are narrow favourites this time because of the garra instilled by Argentinian coach Diego Simeone to avenge Real’s 4-1 extra-time triumph to secure Los Blancos’ long-awaited Decima.
The clubs met first in Europe’s elite club competition back in the 1959 semi-finals when Real won narrowly in a play-off in Zaragoza after a 2-2 aggregate draw. The extent of both clubs’ achievement in stepping out again into the limelight is illustrated by events in Germany earlier this week.
On Monday Eintracht Frankfurt rescued Bundesliga survival by virtue of a 1-0 away win over Nurnberg in a relegation play-off.
Yet back in 1959, Frankfurt were just winning the German championship to start their race to the following year’s historic final and a 7-3 defeat by Real in Glasgow.
While Frankfurt have veered erratically down the intervening years so the two Madrid clubs have retained their allure.
Atletico, true, have been relegated once in that time but they have also secured a Spanish league and cup double as well as six international trophies.
The Colchoneros (mattress makers) would be the pride and glory of almost any other European city were it not for the teeth-grindingly irritating achievements of their neighbours.
Hence a great deal of sympathetic and grudgingly admiring neutral support will swing behind the team being sent out in the Stadio Meazza by the man in black (whatever his own chequered past as World Cup nemesis of England, among others).
Their progress included impressively seeing off former European champions such as Benfica in the group stage then PSV Eindhoven, holders Barcelona and Bayern Munich in the knockout stage (six wins in 12 games, 16 goals for, seven against).
Real, by contrast had no such class of opponent along the way (with all due respect to Roma, Manchester City, etc). That may account for their superior record in winning nine of their 12 games with 27 goals in favour and a mere five conceded. An astonishing 16 of those goals have been scored by Cristiano Ronaldo who can set a Champions League single-season record if he scores twice.
In Lisbon, two years ago, the Portuguese superstar was barely fit but, through sheer respect, demanded close attention which, ultimately, provided space for his team-mates. In 2015 Ronaldo and Co defeated Atletico in the quarter-finals.
This time again questions have been raised about his fitness which ensures that English referee Mark Clattenburg will be kept busy in the opening stages as Diego Godin and Co ‘make their presence felt.’ As in Lisbon, much of the attacking expectation from Real’s coaching novice Zinedine Zidane will rest on the shoulders of Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema.
Benzema’s last chance
For Benzema, unlike Ronaldo and Bale, there will be no European Championship around the corner. The complexities of the notorious ‘video case’ mean France do not want him. If he wants to write his name across this season then here is his last, greatest chance.
Atletico have their own attacking stars in Fernando Torres, with his long experience of Madrid derbies, and the latest French hero in Antoine Griezmann, with seven of Atletico’s goals along the way. Atletico may also look to youngster Saul Niguez to repeat the magic which marked his goal against Bayern Munich.
Zidane, a memorable winner as a goal-scoring Real player in 2002, stepped up only in midseason in place of Rafa Benitez; Simeone has been bossing Atletico in every possible way since 2011.
During their playing days the pair crossed swords eight times, with Simeone winning four and Zidane two. Zidane never lost to Atletico in his playing days with Real but Simeone has lost only once to Real in 10 meetings as Atletico’s coach.
As Griezmann said earlier this week: “It’s going to be difficult.” He might have been speaking for both coaches and both sets of players.
For fans, of course, it’s going to be fascinating.
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