At first sight the 2016 Champions League final between crosstown city rivals Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid is antipodean, full of contrasts and a clash of footballing civilizations, but scratch the surface and that isn’t entirely true.
In 2014, Real Madrid won La Décima in Lisbon, defeating Atletico 4-1 after extra time. After the final whistle, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale danced, a scene of both relief and happiness. They were overjoyed with the victory, because Real Madrid’s obsessive wait for a record tenth European Cup had finally come to an end.
For much of the 90 minutes, Diego Simeone’s masterplan had worked well: His players chased and pestered their opponents in an aggressive but effective style – superstar Ronaldo had largely been restricted in his movements, but deep into injury time central defender Sergio Ramos equalized with a header. Heart-broken Atletico had to relinquish its near grasp on the trophy. Real, though, never looked back.
This Saturday in Milan, both clubs renew their rivalry in a repeat Champions League final, the climax of the European soccer season: Can novice coach Zinedine Zidane restore Real Madrid to its old glory after a largely disappointing season? Is this Antoine Griezman’s last match for Atletico Madrid? Then, there is also the element of revenge for Simeone’s side.
Simeone hasn’t framed this as a match for revenge, rather he considers this second final as a new opportunity. The Argentine’s sense of psychological management speaks to a broader truth: Thibaut Courtois, Diego Costa and a number of other key players left the club after the Lisbon final. He has rebuilt with his customary ingredient: drilling his players to the extreme. But in general, his tactics and style have remained the same.
Style is indeed the existential undercurrent at stake in this final. Simeone’s team is not well-loved. Atletico Madrid is perceived to play negative soccer, sitting deep in defense and hitting opponents on the counter. They elevate elite defending to a cynical art. Ronaldo criticized the ideas Simeone conveyed to his players. “Ronnie has his own opinion. Soccer is like soccer and religion – everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion,” reacted the Argentine laconically.
There is elegance and sophistication to Atletico’s game, but it rarely causes that inner jolt of unfettered joy among sports fans and observers. Lately, the axis of the footballing world has revolved around Pep Guardiola and his legion of ‘Pep-adepts,’ who consider anything less than attacking soccer as an indictment of the beautiful game. In this sense, Simeone, together with Jose Mourinho, is a lone flag bearer for his school of thought that has a simple tenet: winning is everything; victory is the ultimate commodity in the game. The Argentine urchin revels in his antagonism.
Guardiola professes that soccer must be based on possession, risk and pro-activeness, but, ironically, at the height of Barcelona’s much-lauded Tiki Taka game the Catalans often played dull soccer, knitting and weaving together never-ending triangulated patterns to provoke opponents into committing faults. Barcelona, at its best, was a very risk-free team.
The current Atletico team are seemingly the anti-thesis of Tiki Taka when competing at the highest level. Simeone and his players don’t care for possession – the emphasis is on defending deep. Yet, when in possession, Atletico demonstrates radiant simplicity in their passing, lightening-quick transition and lethal finishing. The team completely stonewalled both Barcelona and Bayern Munich for better parts of their respective knockout encounters, and, at the same time, demonstrated many fine attributes of their game with gushing aplomb.
Atletico has shown that a less sexy soccer philosophy is both justifiable and successful, not a pillory anachronism at odds with today’s fixation on possession and pressing. After all, Guardiola doesn’t dictate what happens in soccer.
For now though, there is a danger that the Champions League final may descend into a tactical battle, much due to the borderline chumminess between the two clubs.
“It is going to be a tense and balanced game,” assessed Simeone. “Zidane’s work is amazing. He has taken on the decision of relying on Casemiro, which has changed the nature of the team.”
“The presence of Casemiro makes Real Madrid much more dangerous on the counterattack, continued El Cholo. “If you give Madrid space they are very dangerous.”
And thus the picture should be simple: Atletico invites Real deep into their own territory, right from the kick off. Game on.