By: BOBBY MOHR
When King Charles III, Spain’s “Mayor King,” commissioned the construction of the city’s fountains of the pagan gods Cybele and Neptune in the late 18th century, he probably never imagined either draped in a knit football scarf. But each has, many times, and come the last whistle of this season’s Champions League final, one and only one will be donned again in the colors of the football club that will gather around it for the arrival of Europe’s most prestigious piece of hardware – Real Madrid at Cibeles or Atlético Madrid at Neptuno. The Madrid derby, el derbi madrileño, is the only city derby that has ever contested a European Cup final, and so it does again in Milan later this month for the second time in three seasons, dubbing the capital of Spain once again the footballing capital of the world. Like most derbies, particularly in Spain, Madrid’s most notorious is rooted in socioeconomic and politically estranging soil, but the story lines of more recent events have all but covered them up as both teams look to take aim at each other at the San Siro. For this Champions League final is not one of the bourgeoisie vs the working class, nor the left vs the right, but one of revenge vs revival.
Looking back two years to Lisbon, there’s a couple of broadcast frames of now on-loan Atlético midfielder Cristian Rodríguez from the 2014 final curled up in the Atleti dugout, just a few long tics of the clock way from becoming a European Champion. He’s unwillingly forcing himself through the agony of watching the game’s remaining seconds. Then, as if the mere thought of his worst nightmare was enough to summon its reality, Sergio Ramos equalized from that corner. Somewhere among the chaotic shots of Ramos being mauled by his manic teammates and hoarse Real supporters in the crowd climaxing, the sinister producer cuts the camera back to poor Cristian Rodríguez now sunk deep in the depths of his palms, sobbing. Next appears Diego “Cholo” Simeone frantically gesticulating to the Atleti faithful in desperation. But for once the manager cannot conjure the fervent wave of raucous support his team of brave grafters has ridden all season. It’s like he’s trying to raise a circus tent by himself. Sergio Ramos’ and maybe Real Madrid’s most important ever goal may have only been an equalizer, but it was a hole too penetrating in Atleti’s bow to keep their ship afloat. Real would score thrice more in extra time and lift the European Cup for the tenth time in their history.
So if winning the UEFA Champions League wasn’t motivation enough for Simeone and his band of colchoneros, the retribution they seek for the pain endured two seasons ago is still highly aggravating. Real Madrid on the other hand are feeling the weight of a different kind of anxiety altogether. When Iker Casillas lifted the big-eared trophy in the Estádio de Luz, it was the last major trophy (apart from the two-game chore of the Club World Cup) the club has won. Real Madrid without trophies is like a warship without canons, just another boat. But if there’s anything Real Madrid are not, they are not normal. And living up to the unscuffable persona the club has built around itself while hated adversaries Barcelona have dominated the last decade of Spanish and European football has all but stripped Real of their identity. If Real fans concede (which they won’t) that Barcelona is currently the bigger team in La Liga, who are they to argue that they’re even the more prominent team in Madrid if their neighbors can beat them in final of the competition that has historically defined them, the European Cup. It’s all or nothing for Zinedine Zidane, once figurehead of Real’s first galáctico era turned emergency replacement manager.
While there still may be questions to Zizou’s managerial value, there’s no doubts that the relationship between players and coach have been re-forged in the spots they immediately deteriorated under Rafa Benítez. The mystic Frenchman commands more respect from a dressing room populated by the possessors of the ego-maniacal prerequisite it’s rumored to require to be a Real Madrid player. Where Benítez’s career as a professional player ended prematurely and insignificantly, there are few from Zidane’s era (or outside it) that can claim to have been at Zizou’s level. Zidane, well-liked, is someone Real’s players disclose with; he’s one of them. The same can be said for his Atleti counterpart to his team, however. Simeone, former striped midfield bulldog, can motivate and entice his squad to near-rabid work rates. The denseness of the group and steadfast tenacity that El Cholo has projected onto the Atleti players manifests in each performance, particularly in defending.
Side Lowe, Spanish football expert should coin the phrase he’s been using all season: ‘No team suffers as well as Atlético Madrid.’ In other words, no team can endure going through spells on the defensive foot during games as well as Atleti. And the numbers reflect it. The only team with a better defensive record in their respective league this season across the top five European leagues is the team los rojiblancos most recently disposed of in the Champions League semifinals, Bayern Munich. Bayern conceded one less goal in the Bundesliga, 17, than Atletico with 18, the third place finisher in La Liga. Albeit because Germany’s top division only has 18 teams, Bayern played four less games. Furthermore, Atlético Madrid conceded 18 less goals than the English champion Leicester City, 11 less goals than La Liga winners Barcelona, two less goals than Serie A toppers Juventus, and a goal less than Ligue 1 victors Paris Saint-Germain. But perhaps most relative, they conceded 16 less goals in 38 games than city rivals and European Cup final opposition Real Madrid. Yet on the other hand, Real Madrid scored on 47 more occasions.
When the BBC are healthy, the BBC will play. Zidane made that clear from the moment his appointment as first team manager was made. And when the BBC (Bale, Benzema, and Cristiano [Ronaldo]) play, Real Madrid score goals. So if the three can stay healthy throughout the rumored mini preseason Zidane plans on conducting with his team before the final, much like the one he conducted when he was first given the reins, expect them to start in Milan. In all competitions the three have collectively scored 98 goals this season, effectively without a domestic cup competition after Real was disqualified for fielding Denis Cheryshev illegally in their first match. But this final will be much more than a potent attack against a stoic defense. It’s more complex than that.
On a psychological level Atleti have had the upper hand in the last two seasons. Though historically Real Madrid win the derbi roughly two out of every three meetings, los blancos have found their neighbors by the river to be a bit of a boogieman since Lisbon. In eight meetings since, Atlético have won on four occasions, Real just the once, while the pair have drawn the remaining three. But Real’s lone victory came on a platform that they seem to uphold a sentimental edge with, the Champions League. Last season in the competition’s quarterfinals against Atleti, Ancelotti steered Real Madrid to a 1-0 aggregate win late in the second leg courtesy of Javier “Chicarito” Hernández’s timely goal. But whether it’s a mental barrier for Atleti or Madrid's chronic roster of players whose aggregate Champions League appearances outweigh that of their opponents, there’s something intangible about Real’s favorable disposition in the Champions League. That’s a mental wall Simeone will be studying how to scale.
Atlético Madrid will be able to lean on the fact that they’ve already gotten the better of Real Madrid this season, at the Bernabéu, handing Zidane his first loss as Real Madrid manager. It came in late February when most of the world watched a Real Madrid game and found little continuity from one game to the next. There seemed to be a lack of identity and direction. In truth, Zidane probably didn’t have all the answers either. He was simply feeling out how he wanted to play, trying to answer the omnipresent question: Isco or James? But Zizou, an audacious type by nature, eventually made up his mind – neither. Recognizing the stability that Casemiro brought to the game by cleaning up messes made in front of the back four and distributing to Real’s more attack-minded outlets must have had his manager’s mind flashing back to his own playing career when a certain Claude Makelele would do the same water-carrier’s job for him. With Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić growing in form every week there was no room for either James or Isco. In the February meeting between the two sides Casemiro did not partake, but has featured in every game but four since. With a fight on the horizon, you can bet the Brazilian will be Real’s anchor.
It’s hard to argue that if Atlético Madrid were once living in Real’s shadow, Simeone has opened the curtain. Financially beneath Spain’s big two on the caste system of European football, Atleti’s tale is romantic. Genuine hard workers? The anti-superstar persona? The limited budget? The neutral will fall for Atlético without a nudge in their direction. But has the success of the last six years escalated Atleti’s status? As always, Simeone will tell you no. He’s lying because he knows, especially by now, that the club is a contender that has infiltrated the Real-Barca penthouse. The now trite but still enamoring Cinderella-story is the fabric of the club’s psyche. As soon as Atleti admits they are no longer the underdog, part of their mentality, their appeal is lost. It’s the cornerstone of their success even if they’ve won two Europa League finals and reached two Champions League finals since 2009-2010. They won La Liga in 2014, the Copa del Rey in 2013, and reached the tournament final another time in 2010. That’s four titles with a possible fifth in Milan plus six final appearances in Europe and domestically in six seasons. Real Madrid in that same time? Four titles and five final appearances (including Milan) - comparable numbers.
Even if we can group the performances of the two clubs together in the more near years past, financially Atlético are either more frugal or not as reckless with their checkbook as their posh rivals. Most likely the latter. Real is the richest club in the world. Last year El Cholo had this to say about euro signs and bottom lines: "The supporters are bright people. I’d love to win the league again but the reality is what it is. We all have budgets.” Nevertheless, it is true that in the last two seasons Atleti have spent 50 million more in terms of euros on players than Real Madrid. That being said, they’ve also recovered 108 million more on players they’ve made a profit on. That’s just good business. Of course, when a mega-rich move from China comes for flop Jackson Martínez just six months after his hefty purchase and you can make money on the deal, that’s a no-brainer.
If Real win the final their path to reach it will have been generous. And arguably in the state that los blancos were in earlier this campaign, it may have been the only way to get to where they are now. On the contrary, the four months under Zidane has transformed the squad and built a snowballing momentum going into the pinnacle of the season. Real Madrid ha lost just one of their last 17 and are unbeaten in the last ten over all competitions. It would be unwise for Atlético to judge them as weaker than two years ago. As for Atleti, despite sputtering at the end of La Liga against bottom club Levante to effectively end their title charge on the penultimate week, they pose an obvious threat. Their hit list consists of tournament favorites Barcelona and Bayern Munich against whom they looked more comfortable than not in three out of four legs.
Whereas Atlético seemed to have constructed meticulous tactical game plans for their two-legged knockout rounds, Madrid much less so. They appeared, though prepared, to attempt to walk out on the pitch and outclass their opponents on every occasion. It wasn’t always the most effective plan (a la Wolfsburg away), but it won’t complicate Zidane’s approach to the final. The Frenchman has boatloads of talent; he only needs to assemble the pieces. Simeone on the other hand has more of a puzzle on his hands. In many ways he shows shades of Sir Alex Ferguson. Though Fergie was in charge of herd of mostly above average players at Manchester United, the majority of them not in the range of world class, he was able to get a 9/10 performance out of them nearly every match. Just look at Fernando Torres; El Cholo brought him back from the dead. Koke is not Modric, Griezmann is not Cristiano Ronaldo, and Gabi isn’t Toni Kroos, but you can be damn sure there won’t be much in it on the 28th. The team that is better on the day will take the title.
So come Milan and the patchwork quilt of badly colored seating at the Giuseppe Miazza Stadium you can count on most likely seeing the following incidents. Diego Simeone will dress like Bond villain. Zidane will probably split the seam of his tailored trousers (again). A scuffle here and there, a moment or two of brilliance, but most of all a spectacle of passion and talent. That’s what a derby brings, that’s what a final brings. Back in Madrid the plazas Cibeles and Neptuno will wait just three blocks apart for their date with big-eared European glory. But inevitably one will be stood up.