The San Siro beckons

The Real Madrid versus Atletico Madrid in the Champions League final is going to be a fascinating contest — tactically and emotionally.

Gareth Bale of Real Madrid is cock-a-hoop after scoring against Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League semifinal second leg at the Bernabeu.   -  REUTERS

Atletico Madrid players (from left: Fernando Torres, Stefan Savic, Saul Niguez and Thomas Partey) celebrate after winning the UEFA Champions League semifinal, second-leg, against Bayern Munich.   -  Getty Images

Normalcy has returned to sleep patterns on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. One last game in the Champions League remains that the San Siro will stage. Real Madrid versus Atletico Madrid in the final on May 28 may not sound like a dream line-up to crown Europe’s best, but there are so many sub-plots that should ensure this game would be anything but dull.

 

Two teams from the same geographical area, but with absolutely different styles of play, will be at each other’s throat for 90 minutes or even more in a finale that will be orchestrated by two masters of the game from the touchline.

From among the semifinal games, the Real-City was a big letdown. It was painful watching City play at the Barnabeu; The Bayern-Atletico game was a complete contrast from a viewer’s standpoint. However, the summit clash will be a completely different ball game.

The plot and the cast

While most people would choose to use performances over the two legs of the semifinal as an indicator to pick a favourite, trust me when I tell you it would be the worst yardstick. This game is a derby first and a Champions League final later. There is no favourite. History will throw enough and more instances where teams and players have had indifferent seasons or are in the most mediocre of forms but turn all of that on its head and play as if they are possessed when it comes to a derby.

Real Madrid are Real Madrid with the galaxy of stars they have on their roster. If Ronaldo has an off day, Bale steps up. And should they both struggle, James Rodriguez doesn’t need anyone’s vote of confidence to suggest what he’s capable of delivering. I was really impressed with Dani Carvajal that Wednesday (May 4) and then there’s the unsung star in Luka Modric. I am a Barcelona fan but have no qualms in admitting that Real, when in flow, can be a treat to watch.

However, before you discount Atletico, I’m going to quickly remind you that their journey to Milan has seen them slay Barcelona and Bayern Munich on the away-goal rule. It’s taken them four good games against two absolute giants to make the final. They’re also going to look at this as the best chance to avenge their heartbreaking loss in the 2014 final, where they came in as underdogs and were a minute away from scripting glory only for Sergio Ramos to equalise in the 93rd minute and take the game into extra-time. You cannot give Real an inch and Atletico didn’t till that Ramos goal. After that, it was all Real as the game ended 4-1. What could have been a story for the ages ended up being a nightmare in a matter of minutes and Atletico will be keen to set things right.

Interestingly, only five members remain from the Atletico squad that finished runners-up in 2014, which tells you how rapidly the new set of players has progressed as a team.

The schemers

For all the names both teams possess and will put out, this final could well be won from the touchline. Zinedine Zidane versus Diego Simeone is going to be absolutely interesting to watch.

Whatever happens at full time, Zidane should be handed credit and more. He’s come midway and taken over a dressing room with a sour atmosphere and turned it around rapidly. He sure hasn’t fixed it completely but has done enough for them to pull through. Bale echoed the sentiments of the dressing room when, after the victory against Manchester City, he said that the team under Zidane is able to express themselves and that the Frenchman has given them belief. This is the same Bale, who was rumoured to follow Ronaldo and Isco out of Barnabeu because they were unhappy, a few months ago.

Simeone, on the other hand, is a complete paradox when compared with the calm-headed Zidane. He’s a character around whom there never will be a dull moment. From being suspended for throwing a ball on the pitch while Malaga were launching a counter-attack in a La Liga game to more recently striking his colleague after a substitution he wanted couldn’t be made in the dying moments of the second leg against Munich — Simeone comes with his touchline antics. I even read somewhere that he was sent off as an eleven-year-old ball boy when he threw a ball onto the pitch to aid the team he supported! That should tell you all you need to know about the manager who wears nothing but black at every game.

But I think it’s this ‘madness’ that endears him to most people, starting with his squad. Two finals in three years and challenging the Barca-Real La Liga dominance must indicate that Simeone is doing more than just a few things correctly.

I don’t consider myself as an authority on strategy and so I won’t even get there but it’s evident the kind of influence Zidane and Simeone have on their teams when it comes to style of play.

Real love to attack in numbers and their full-backs are always looking to find joy in the opponent’s third. Atletico, meanwhile, love playing deep in their own half. They have a narrow shape making it difficult to break them down and are quick to launch a counter as soon as they get the ball. Atletico relies on the team as a whole to come together to pull off success. Real, meanwhile, have no qualms in accepting that individual brilliance helps them win a lot more often. It’s going to be a fascinating contest to say the least — tactically and emotionally.

When it comes to experience on the touchline, Simeone may have a slight edge over Zidane. But if the Frenchman has any doubters who deem him a ‘kid’ on a stage like this, just google the words ‘Zidane’, ‘volley’, ‘Leverkusen’ and ‘2002 final’ — it should do enough to put to rest any second thoughts. Over to the San Siro, then!

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