It looks set to be a genuine classic in this year’s Champions League final. Atletico versus Real. The Madrid Derby. The working class boys brought up on the wrong side of the Manzanares River under the shadow of the Mahou brewery against the ‘team of the establishment’ whose glittering history has been played out alongside the aristocrats and merchant banks of the Paseo de la Castellena.
A little history
This is one of the most vehement and divisive rivalries in European football: the leftist leanings of Atleti against the team famously referred to by one of Franco’s ministers as “the best ambassador we’ve ever had”. While those days are long past, that history is not forgotten and the terraces of the Vicente Calderon often reverberate to the sound of “el equipo del gobierno, la vergüenza del país” – the team of the government, the shame of the country. Stuff like that makes the Manchester Derby look like a family picnic!
The last time they met in Europe
This is only the second time the two Madrid teams have faced each other in Europe. The last was back in 1958 when the semi-final finished 2-2 and Real went on to win the play-off game, and the final against Stade Reims. However, as many an Atletico fan will tell you, if the away goals rule had been in place back then Atleti would have won the tie and murdered Reims in the final!
What follows are some key Opta stats that back up a few ideas of where I think both teams have weaknesses and strengths that could affect their chances in the final. I’m not gonna give any predictions though: I’ll only get a hiding in training (and on Twitter!) if I get it wrong.
Despite Ramos’ two goals against Bayern and the fact that he put in a very, very solid display alongside Pepe, you can’t help but think one of those two has a mistake or a sending off in them can you? With 19 red cards in La Liga, Sergio Ramos has been sent off more times than any player in Spanish league history. And Pepe seems to want to get stuck into any confrontation on the pitch. So maybe the cauldron of the Madrid Derby and the chance to win la decima might just bring out the worst in one of them?
One daft challenge and you’re out of the final. Xabi Alonso must be gutted, and it could have a huge effect on Real’s ability to perform. Alonso knows how to win a Champions League final having done so at Liverpool, but most importantly he is the player that allows the other players in midfield to play. Will Modric and Di Maria have the confidence to play the way they have of late with Khedira in place of Alonso?
Plan A and Plan B
Much has been made of the failure of Bayern’s ‘possession at all costs’ style of football. But Real don’t have that limitation. Against Bayern in the second leg of the semi-final they only had 31% of possession, but still managed to hit on the break and walk away with a 4-0 win. This is down in large part to the speed and skill of Bale, Ronaldo, Benzema and Di Maria, but is also based on the ability of Modric and their defenders to pick out their forward runs. There have also been games in the season where Real have dominated possession and taken opponents apart slowly and steadily. In the last Madrid derby, Ramos had an 86% pass completion rate, Pepe 83.3%, Arbeloa 81.8%, Di Maria 85%, Alonso 88.5% and Modric 82%. Even the keeper completed 72.7% of his passes. So whatever way you play against them, they can and will hurt you.
European Final Experience
Atletico have been to two finals in the last five years, while Real haven’t graced a European Cup Final since Hampden Park in 2002. So as crazy as it is seems, this Real team have less experience in European finals, and less experience of European success, than their rivals. The only player that was in a European final match day squad for Real was Casillas, who spent the 2002 final on the bench. In contrast, Atletico have won both the Europa League and the Super Cup under Simeone and look a pretty decent bet for La Liga this year too.