Real Madrid, on a 12-year quest for a tenth European crown, and their historic rivals Atletico, who are in search of their first-ever triumph in the continent’s premier club tournament, will lock horns in the final of the UEFA Champions League at Lisbon’s Estadio da Luz on Saturday.
While two teams from the same country have previously battled for the prestigious trophy in the competition’s showpiece match on five occasions, this weekend’s encounter will be the first between clubs from the same city. Whichever side emerges victorious, it will be a season to remember for Spanish football, with Sevilla having recently captured the UEFA Europa League title.
The 253rd Madrid derby (134 wins for Real, 62 wins for Atletico, 56 draws) is likely to be the most important ever contested between two clubs that draw their support from all over the Spanish capital, and even from within the royal family, where opinion is split.
On paper, it is a clash between the most prolific attack (Real) and most miserly defence (Atletico), but judging the two finalists based on simple statistics could potentially be a mistake. Los Blancos, who undeniably boast an incredibly exciting triumvirate up front, have had a more balanced and composed look at the back under Carlo Ancelotti.
Diego Simeone, meanwhile, has conveyed an assertive message to his players, encouraging them to take a leaf out of his book and perform like men ‘holding knives between their teeth’.
This approach has seen Los Colchoneros, a team few fans expected to be challenging for honours this season, maintain the only unbeaten record in the competition.
The old foes do have one thing in common this campaign, however. They have both lifted a trophy at the expense of the mighty Barcelona, namely the Copa del Rey for Real and La Liga for Atletico, their first national championship in 18 years.
Route to the final
Advanced as winner of Group G with five victories and one draw (away to Zenit St. Petersburg)
Round of 16: AC Milan (1-0, 4-1)
Quarter-final: Barcelona (1-1, 1-0)
Semi-final: Chelsea (0-0, 3-1)
Record: nine wins and three draws (25 goals for, eight against)
Advanced as winner of Group B with five victories and one draw (away to Juventus)
Round of 16: Schalke (6-1, 3-1)
Quarter-final: Borussia Dortmund (3-0, 0-2)
Semi-final: Bayern Munich (1-0, 4-0)
Record: Ten wins, one draw and one defeat (37 goals for, nine against)
Players to watch
Gabi, Atletico Madrid’s captain for the past two seasons, is a tireless defensive midfielder who constitutes the heart and lungs of the side - the type of player who gives his all for the good of the team.
“We’re a team of grafters. We’re a mirror image of our country at this moment in time,” explained the 30-year-old Spaniard. “The way in which we constantly give 100 per cent helps supporters to identify with us more easily.”
Winner of the most recent FIFA Ballon d'Or and holder of the goalscoring record for a single Champions League season, Cristiano Ronaldo is Real’s leading man, a superstar whose mere presence can boost the confidence of his team-mates. Despite nursing a niggling injury, he will doubtless put in a typically committed performance in an attempt to extend his list of honours and set new statistical benchmarks.
“Records are there to be broken,” said the Portuguese forward. “But it’s not a priority of mine because I think that it just happens naturally. The most important thing is winning trophies.”
When Diego Simeone returned to Atletico in December 2011, the club was entrenched in mid-table mediocrity. In just a few months, the fiery Argentinian succeeded in imparting his combative approach and winning mentality to his players, while encouraging them to push themselves to the limit.
Since then, Los Rojiblancos have collected a wealth of silverware, including the 2012 UEFA Europa League title, the 2012 UEFA Super Cup, the 2013 Copa del Rey and the 2014 Liga trophy, their first Spanish League title since the 1995/96 season, during which their current coach patrolled their midfield with aplomb.
Simeone, now 44, was capped no fewer than 106 times for his country, whose fans look back fondly on his fighting spirit and never-say-die attitude.
Enticed away from Paris Saint-Germain at the start of the season, Carlo Ancelotti was handed the task of instilling a sense of calm at Real Madrid and providing them with more of an attacking threat. The vastly experienced Italian tactician not only met those challenges, but deftly handled a squad overflowing with household names and strong characters.
Although Los Merengues’ Liga campaign ultimately ended in failure, Ancelotti has nevertheless fulfilled a crucial part of his contract by steering his charges to a final that gives them a marvellous opportunity to claim ‘La Decima’, the long-awaited tenth European Cup/Champions League title.
16 – Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal tally this term in the Champions League, which represents a new tournament record. The previous mark of 14 was held jointly by Lionel Messi (2012) and Jose Altafini (1963). However, the highest total number of goals in a European competition was achieved by another clinical attacker, Colombia’s Radamel Falcao, who struck 17 times during Porto’s successful 2010/2011 UEFA Europa League campaign.
71 – The record number of Champions League goals notched by legendary Spanish front man Raul, a total now being threatened by Ronaldo, who has 66 to his name, and Lionel Messi (67).
4 – The number of European Cup/Champions League crowns secured by Carlo Ancelotti with AC Milan, twice as a player and twice as a coach.
23 – After picking up a yellow card in Real’s semi-final with Bayern Munich, midfielder Xabi Alonso became the 23rd player in tournament history to be suspended from the final. The deep-lying playmaker previously earned a Champions League winners’ medal with Liverpool in 2005.
What they said
“In order to attack with purpose, you have to defend extremely well. And you need to make a good start to the game, above all. The manner in which we begin the match psychologically could go a long way to deciding the outcome,” Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone
“You have to go into this type of match in a relaxed frame of mind. Fear is your worst enemy. You need to prepare your players and sort out your tactics beforehand. When we actually think about what’s awaiting us, it’s not a time to let fear get the better of us,” Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti
Have your say
Who will open the scoring in the final?