ATLETICO Madrid are far from the underdogs they were two years ago.
Diego Simeone has built a sustained model of success at the Vicente Calderon and as they face city rivals Real Madrid once again in the UEFA Champions League final on Saturday, there is no shadow of a doubt of them being taken as a one-hit wonder.
Reaching two Champions League finals in three years is no mean feat and Simeone has moulded a side that refuses to buckle in the sternest of scenarios – their tenacious approach a throwback to the Argentine midfielder’s combative playing style.
“The final is fifty-fifty,” Simeone said earlier this week. “The two teams have the same options. In a one-game match, everyone has options and it’s clear we want to win.
“We base our work in 90 minutes of play, knowing that all the minutes have to be of high quality. Every minute has to mean life for whoever is playing.
“Our style is to renew ourselves starting from the characteristics of the players and empowering the football player, which is the most important thing in this game.”
If he manages to guide Atletico to their maiden Champions League title at the San Siro, he will become only the third non-European coach to lift Europe’s premier club competition.
Victory will also see him win it all with the club, having helped Atletico win the UEFA Europa League in 2012 – his first season with the club, the Copa del Rey a year later and La Liga in 2014.
The UEFA Super Cup and Spanish Super Cup have also been won in between but it’s the Champions League that Atletico would be going all out for — especially after their last-minute heartbreak against Real in the final two years ago in Lisbon.
Then, Atletico led 1-0 till the final minute of the match until Real grabbed a last-gasp leveller to take the match into extra time and eventually ran out 4-1 winners.
Real’s victory in at the Luz Stadium saw them win a much-vaunted ‘Decima’ their 10th European Cup/Champions League crown.
The record winners are now looking for their 11th crown – the ‘Undecima’.
“It’s great to be in another final and I think we’ve worked very hard this season to get here,” winger Gareth Bale said in an interview with Audi this week.
“Now we’re really excited to have the opportunity to lift another trophy and I hope that we can take advantage and win the game.”
Real coach Zinedine Zidane understands the pressure that comes with the club’s obsession with winning the Champions League.
Hired mid-season after Rafael Benitez was fired after a dismal start to the campaign, Zidane turned around the club’s fortunes helping them finish second in La Liga to champions Barcelona and ahead of third-placed Atletico who were Barca’s closest challengers for the majority of the season.
His sensational volley in the final of the 2002 edition in a 2-1 win at Hampden Park against Bayer Leverkusen delivered the club’s ninth title.
It took them 12 years to win their 10th. Now, they are hoping there isn’t a similar wait for their 11th.
“A lot of time the experience is very important and in this aspect we’ve got a small advantage,” Real’s Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo said.
“Atletico will be alert as a result of what happened two years ago and I hope the game will be different. Atletico will want to win but we’re ready.”
Ronaldo gave Real and their fans a major scare this week when he limped off a training session but the club and he himself declared he will be fit for the final.
Having scored 16 goals so far, he will be looking to break his record of 17 goals in a single Champions League season, set in 2014, or even tie it.
“It would be nice to get the record,” he said. “But the important thing is to win.”
BAYERN SENT PACKING
While Real needed a second-leg Ronaldo hat-trick against German side VfL Wolfsburg to progress 3-2 on aggregate in the quarter-finals and saw off Manchester City 1-0 on aggregate in two dour semi-final ties, it’s Atletico’s run to the final which has been the more captivating.
Atletico stunned holders and Barca in the quarter-finals, bouncing back from a 2-1 first-leg loss to win 2-0 at home in the return fixture with French ace Antoine Griezmann scoring both the goals.
They then saw off Bayern Munich in a gripping semi-final, winning 1-0 at home through a Saul Niguez stunner before losing 2-1 away to progress on away goals.
Bayern’s defeat meant they lost in the semi-finals for the third straight season — and in the both previous occasions, the team that beat them in the last four, Real in 2014 and Barca last season, have gone on to win the Champions League.
But Atletico surely don’t want to win the Champions League through sheer coincidence.
“Just because we beat Bayern Munich and Barcelona doesn’t mean we will beat Real Madrid,” Griezmann noted this week. “You have to be at a 100 per cent and give your all to be able to win.”
Atletico are indeed a team that win through their players giving a 100 per cent in each game.
Simeone has built a team based on collective strength, with a little smattering of individual talent, having seen his best players over the years snapped by the continent’s bigger clubs.
Players like Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Arda Turan have all come and gone yet Atletico have not let their standards fall.
If those years of hard work deliver the Champions League title on Saturday, it will be the biggest moment in history of the club which has always been seen as inferior to Real in the Spanish capital.
Real have a massive task on their hands.