An athletic way of spotting the real Madrid

El Derbi Madrileno, an epic battle of intricate tactical designs, will set two teams and two philosophies in a grand war of attrition. Neither team will come out unscathed and only the fittest (mentally strongest) will win the right to unfurl its flag in the Spanish capital, writes Ayon Sengupta in this prelude to the Real Madrid-Atletico Madrid clash in the Champions League final.

Sporting pits, which have mercifully replaced battlefields as the preferred arena to express our primordial predispositions, have usually remained true to the nomenclature, the “Survival of the Fittest.” Slightly veering from the original maxim, the biggest or wealthiest club teams in the world have found ways to buy continuous on-field success.

Madrid Football Club, granted its Royal (Real) decree by King Alfonso XIII in 1920, has always had an overbearing presence over Spanish as well as continental football. With 32 national League titles and nine European Cups (both a record haul) the elitist team from the Spanish capital, sporting the royal crown on its crest, is phenomenally popular (it has over 2000 officially registered supporters’ groups) with immense visibility (the club’s jersey is bought by a million new fans every year), always attracting the best of talents from across the globe.

The present team, expensively assembled on an annual budget of Euro 515 million, consists of the current World Player of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo, and the most expensive player ever, Gareth Bale. These new age Galacticos, now coached by Italian Carlo Ancelotti, are all too eager to make it a Decima — winning Madrid’s 10th European Cup/Champions League.

Lisbon, just a mere 650km down the Carretera de Extremadura, is the place for this latest final stand and many a Madridista is going to make the six-hour-long journey, hoping to celebrate a first European win since 2002.

Travelling together but challenging them — shout for shout — on match day will be the fanatical blue-collared supporters of Atletico — the poor-man’s team in Madrid.

Burdened with heavy debts and surviving on an annual budget of Euro 123 million (the financially weakest team to reach a Champions League final since Porto in 2004), Atletico, punching way above its weight, has surprised many, but has justly earned the right to contest its city rival. Based on European accomplishments, the teams have performed on an almost even keel (see box) and hence this Champions League final, a derby clash for the first time, promises to be a riveting affair.

The meeting will be the 265th between the two sides in a rivalry that dates back to 1928. Real, needless to say, leads the headcount with 143 wins to Atletico’s 64. The two did meet in a European Cup semi-final in 1958-59 where Real triumphed — winning 2-1 at the neutral venue, Zaragoza, after the first two legs had failed to find a winner.

But the fortunes of Los Colchoneros have been on the upswing in recent years with the club ending a 13-year, 25-match long wait, in beating Real last year. The 2-1 win at the Santiago Bernabeu ended Jose Mourinho’s reign as the Los Merengues boss and handed Atletico the Copa del Rey title. The Diego Simeone-coached team has remained unbeaten in its two League meetings against Real this term — winning 1-0 at the Bernabeu and drawing 2-2 at the Vicente Calderon. Real, though, triumphed twice over the two-leg Copa del Rey semi-final.

Rahul Garcia... pumping in a baker's dozen for Atletico.-AP

Los Blancos, better possession-wise (compared to last season), have been their usual open and expansive self and have cruised through the European campaign, winning 10 of their 12 matches so far. The team showed strategic suppleness to defend assiduously and efficiently against serial possession specialist Bayern Munich, the defending champion. Making his team sit deep, Ancelotti used the pace of Ronaldo, Bale, Karim Benzema and Angel di Maria on the break to unlock the German defence, handing the Munich team a humiliating 4-0 home defeat.

Atletico, which knocked out pedigreed units like Barcelona and Chelsea over the last two rounds, too has built its foundation on a solid defensive setup, conceding only six goals in its 12 continental games. Up against an expensively-assembled Chelsea side in the last four stage, playing a similar counter-attacking game, Atletico showed more quality and willingness to go forward and routed the home team in the second-leg (3-1).

Simeone has imbibed great fighting qualities in his team and has done admirably well, despite losing Colombian striker Radamel Falcao, the club’s highest scorer last season, who moved to Monaco at the start of the campaign. But the former Argentine skipper, refusing to fret over such misfortunes, tweaked his line-up and pushed second striker Diego Costa to lead the line. Success, thereafter, was almost instantaneous.

Costa, who recently made his debut for Spain, has scored 35 goals (four assists — La Liga and UCL) and has been ably assisted by Koke (seven goals, 15 assists), skipper Gabi (three goals, 11 assists) and Raul Garcia (13 goals and seven assists), with David Villa (13 goals, four assists) admirably executing the role of a “Super Sub.” Simeone’s other great achievement has been his astute handling of a relatively small squad (25 members). Seven Atletico players have started 45 matches or more this season, a glowing tribute to their commitment as well as the good work put in by the club’s fitness and support staff.

“I want to say thanks to the mothers who gave birth to these players: they have huge balls,” Simeone said after the emotional semi-final triumph.

But Real, as an opponent, comes with the best attacking talents. Ronaldo (47 goals, 12 assists — La Liga and UCL), Benzema (22 goals, 13 assists), Bale (19 goals, 16 assists) and di Maria (8 goals, 20 assists) have formed a destructive attacking quartet and Atletico will need extra men in the midfield to nullify this collective threat.

Real, however, will miss anchor Xabi Alonso on disciplinary grounds and his likely replacement Asier Illarramendi has failed to impress in his first season at the Bernabeu. The former Real Sociedad central midfielder, still maturing as a player, will have the difficult task of holding court in the middle and break the combination play of Gabi and Mario Suarez. Atletico, lethal on the break, will try to use the physicality of Costa and Garcia to intimidate Real’s often fragile central defensive pairing of Pepe and Sergio Ramos.

This El Derbi Madrileno, an epic battle of intricate tactical designs, will set two teams and two philosophies in a grand war of attrition. Neither team will come out unscathed and only the fittest (mentally strongest) will win the right to unfurl its flag in the Spanish capital.