Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid prepare for battle, in what is a repeat of the 2014 Champions League final. Atleti came within seconds of winning, but Ramos’ header denied them. Diego Simeone now has the chance to bury the ghosts of that fateful night, and has the right tactical weapons to do so.
1. How they will shape up
Real Madrid are still a work in progress, with Zinedine Zidane’s side evolving from a side that would play defence first with fullbacks asked to take a balanced approach, to a team that now plays with the more vertical movement of Marcelo and Carvajal. But all that has been possible because of the 4-3-3 that Zizou prefers his team to play. Possession-based game with Modric and Kroos dictating the play and vertical runners in Benzema, Carvajal, and Marcelo, with some diagonal running from Bale and Ronaldo. Real have enjoyed a 56% possession in Europe this season and look like a team that prefers to hold a grip in the game.
Precisely why they probably have no shape without the ball and look at sea most of the time when facing a counter-attacking team. The narrow 4-3-3 with not enough defensive work from the wing forwards makes it further lopsided if a team were to counter using the flanks, just like Julian Draxler did in the quarters.
Atletico, on their part, have just the right tools to hurt Real. Gareth Bale said he expects Atletico to "park the bus". But that's exactly where Atletico are perceived incorrectly. They will play a 4-4-2, which at times in defence, changes to a 4-1-4-1 with tightness throughout the pitch. But they still maintain the 4 in the middle and have the obvious advantage of outnumbering the opponent fullbacks. It will be interesting to see if Zidane reacts to the threat possessed by their opponent's lineup and asks his fullbacks to play more orthodox football and not be adventurous. That, however, seems a long shot, meaning Saul Niguez and Koke could have a lot of joy the moment Atleti dispossess Real. Amusingly, even Atleti’s forwards—Torres and Griezmann—sometimes choose to go wide, either in order to press or to make up the numbers.
The fact that Atleti are a natural counter punching side, that prefers to absorb pressure, means Real Madrid need to be more proactive, meaning Kroos-Modric need to feed Ronaldo-Bale faster. Make quicker transitions. And that is where Simeone has often mastered Real and most teams in Europe. Teams hit roadblocks trying to get past the last line of Atleti’s defence due to their sheer compactness, and we will see the same on Saturday night.
2. Forward pressing vs Kroos Modric
Against Manchester City, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric almost puppet-stringed the game as Madrid ran away winners. But the chances of them getting as much space, and time on the ball, is unlikely against an Atleti team that can press in different capacities. Real Madrid’s origin of attack tends to come from the deeper midfield positions, and if they are to gain a foothold on the game and not just boast superior possession numbers, one out of the two will need to be more mobile.
Atletico are masters of blocking channels, and the only way to offset that is by making runs off the ball into pockets of space in a vertical manner. That was beautifully demonstrated by Arturo Vidal in the semi-final. Bayern might have bowed out in the semis, but they probably laid the blueprint on how to deal with this Atleti side. But that is where the problem lies, Madrid do not have a natural shuttler in their midfield. A certain Angel di Maria took Real over the line 2 years back and he was the epitome of what a shuttler is. The only one that can play that role – Isco – is highly unlikely to start and thereby lies the problem.
The last time these two sides met, Atletico harassed Real by putting an ocean of players behind the ball, led by their strikers. On Saturday again, Griezmann and Torres will be alongside Kroos and Modric, if the duo attempt to pull strings from deep again. With the ball not reaching the forwards nearly quick enough, they will have to drop back further, distorting the shape, thus playing even more Atleti’s hands further.
3. Bale and Ronaldo
When Real beat Barcelona 2-1, or drew against Man City in the first leg semi, or beat Wolfsburg 3-0 in the quarters second leg, somehow it was always Casemiro who would be the biggest thorn in the opponent side. Partly because all those sides had natural creative flair, and their game was built around that. Not this Atletico team, and which is why Casemiro’s role might be profound on the night but not defining. That would be Ronaldo and Bale.
The two most expensive players on Real Madrid’s payroll will need to step it up like they did in 2014 after Ramos had equalized for Los Blancos. Except, it will need to be from the starting whistle this time. Ronaldo especially will need to get the better of Juanfran in their personal matchup on that side of the pitch. Over the years, Ronaldo has become more of a penalty-box player than the unpredictable explosive player he was in yesteryears. If Atletico stay true to their ethics, they will flood the box with players and make it difficult for the Real attackers to catch a breath inside the D. Solution? Take shots from range. And that holds true for Kroos and Modric as well. Ronaldo’s shooting from just outside the area has always been sniper like and he will need to do that a little more. Bale on his part, will accelerate and look to trouble Felipe Luis. But easier said than done. Luis put in a monster performance vs Bayern in the first leg, making Coman a non-factor for the best part of an hour, and he will make life difficult for Bale too.
The fact that Real Madrid are a more individual side than Atleti could play to their advantage, with more match-winners in their ranks. Having said that Atleti’s team ethic is par excellence and will need more than just raw skills to break them down. More than half of Atleti’s side have changed since the final two years ago, and the lack of discipline and concentration that cost them the match are addressed now. Can Real Madrid utilize set-pieces to their advantage again? Or will they get punished on them? Can Ramos-Pepe keep the notoriously silky Griezmann at bay, or will Diego Godin be the boss at the other end, letting nothing past him? Saying whoever wins those battles will win the game for their side is foolhardy. This one promises to be a classic.
Prediction: Real Madrid 1-2 Atletico Madrid
Real Madrid have gotten themselves a cup-team tag of late, but Atletico are no pushovers. In fact, they are the perfect mould of bullies that Zidane’s side hate to play. With bodies in the box, Atleti are unlikely to concede more than one, while on the counter they can punish their city rivals and have proved to possess enough firepower in their attack to score one extra, and avenge for the loss 2 years back.
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