Lisbon it is then. The UEFA Champions League is at its final trench, and the Portuguese city of fine architecture will be smeared with a large chunk of the Hispanic (Madrid precisely) populace on the night of the 24th. The two teams from Madrid, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid square off, in perhaps the most consequential derby in history. Managers Carlo Ancelotti and Diego Simeone are little less than polar opposites in terms of experience and achievements in the tournament; Ancelotti is chasing his third European Cup triumph while Simeone is in his first-ever final.
This post is my hand at previewing the big game through the tactical lenses; how and where the battles and the war could be won and lost.
TEAM NEWS AND FORMATION
Real Madrid are the purported home team in a neutral venue. They will be without the suspended Xabi Alonso’s services. Sami Khedira started Real’s last two games, but is unlikely to again start in the final. His experience could be sacrificed for some familiarity in young Assier Illarramendi or creativity in Isco. Both are unlikely to produce the Alonso-esque influence, and added responsibility will befall the impressive Luka Modric. Both Illarramendi and Isco have played in bits in Real’s run to the final, while Khedira remained sidelined through injury. Angel di Maria will start on Modric’s left, and it would be interesting to see whether Ancelotti goes for more adventure with Isco or some safety with Illarra.
Marcelo is fit again, while Pepe is a doubt. The Portuguese is feeling those end-of-season niggles, and should shrug it off in time.
Angel di Maria. The Argentine has been brilliant in his new, deeper role near the central players. His free role across the pitch has been an Ancelotti masterstroke; it has given him the freedom to use his explosiveness, and relieved him of the added responsibilities of a winger. And he doesn’t have to fight places with Ronaldo or Bale either. He could easily be the difference between winning and letting go La Decima.
Ancelotti has favored the 4-3-3 as the season wore on, and the integration of Bale into the front-three has made things a tad easier for the Italian. Di Maria was a headache, but Khedira’s injury rendered it harmless and inventive. Karim Benzema’s touch is a worry, considering Atletico’s high-intensity pressing.
Atletico Madrid face numerous problems as the cost of competing on all fronts has taken its toll. Star striker Diego Costa is almost ruled out, while anxiety surrounds the fitness of Arda Turan. This could provide an opportunity for Diego Ribas to start in his conventional role behind the main striker. There are reportedly no further injuries, and no suspensions either.
Diego Simeone has preferred a narrow 4-4-2 for most parts of the season, but could be forced to opt for an almost-similar 4-4-1-1, which is more like a 4-2-3-1 with the ball and a 4-4-2 without the ball. David Villa will be used as the square peg to fill the round hole of Costa, while Raul Garcia has showed he is more than an able replacement for Arda on the right. The shape should remain the same, as Garcia is almost a like-for-like replacement.
- Atletico’s intelligent pressing could take Bale out of the game
Atletico Madrid’s feature of this highly successful season has been their tactical pressing. They press aggressively and cut down spaces for opposition, whilst keeping their shape. The touchline serves as an important feature of their pressing game, and they are almost at ease with teams that favor width a la Real Madrid. Their incredible ability to maintain shape is testament to Simeone’s work, and this could take out one of Real’s twin threat, Gareth Bale, out of the game.
Bale is newer to the occasion and is an easier target than superstar Ronaldo, and Filipe Luis on Atleti’s left-back is defensively better equipped than Juanfran. The circled area is Bale’s zone, and he will be fed by either of Modric or Illarramendi and right-back Carvajal. As stated before, Atleti shape without the ball turns into a 4-4-2; two banks of four with the first bank acting as destroyer. As Bale receives the ball, Filipe closes him down. Bale could find a pass or try a quick one-two with one of the central players, but Gabi’s positioning and his harrying of the central player from behind means that there is little to no chance of Bale receiving the second ball. And Koke converges in cutting outlets to Carvajal.
Taking Bale out of the game won’t be easy, but the fact that he is more of a runner than a dribbler helps Atleti’s cause. And Filipe Luis is not a pushover in one-on-ones.
- Real Madrid’s quick switches on possession turnovers
Atletico Madrid aren’t going to open up spaces like the way Bayern did at the Allianz Arena. There is a reason why they’ve conceded a tournament-low six goals, and it is their organization and maintenance of shape. Counter-attacks are Real’s forte, but they face an Atletico Madrid side that defends pretty deep and offers little space. One chink in Atleti’s armor could be the fact that when they attack, their full-backs are usually involved. And they delve deep into the bylines.
Real Madrid could break the organized Atletico defense by exploiting the space behind their full-backs. With one of the flanks unmanned, a precise through ball or a lofted ball could open up spaces for the front men, and this is where the absence of Alonso will be felt keenly.
Luka Modric could become a poor man’s Alonso, but whatever he does, he will need to do quickly. Atletico reorganize fast, and possession turnovers would be handy to Real only if they play the ball out quick. This presents their most viable and realistic route of counter-attack.
- Set Pieces
Both teams rely heavily on set pieces, and both teams are equally adept at converting set piece opportunities into goals. Real Madrid possess a genuine threat on direct free-kicks in Cristiano Ronaldo, while Atletico Madrid have tried out-of-the-box training ground routines to hoodwink opponents. Corner kicks will be more about canceling each other out rather than having an edge, but with a half-fit Diego Costa, Atletico will definitely miss the specialist from the spot.
Atletico are particularly strong at defending set pieces. Their two center-back Diego Godin and Miranda are of the physical kind and relishes the aerial battle. They are extremely strong at manning their zones. Atletico normally employ a half-zonal-half-man marking system at corners. Godin, Raul Garcia and Miranda man three zones from near post to far post, while the others occupy the players in the middle. The fact that they have an excellent anticipatory goalkeeper in Courtois is an good advantage for Atleti to have.
Real Madrid under Ancelotti have basically used man-marking at set pieces. The two brutes in Pepe and Ramos are proactive defenders, and they barely wait inside the six-yard box. Xabi Alonso’s less-than-impressive instincts at marking players won’t be missed, while Ancelotti will need to bring a bit more discipline to Real’s ranks.
Will Atletico Madrid be the newest exponents of the cliched ‘whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ or will Real Madrid prove it the other way round? All eyes will be on the majestic Estadio Da Luz in Lisbon on Saturday night, as another glorious season of celebration of club football reaches its climax. My heart says Atletico, but head roots for Real. Both ways though, we will definitely witness history unfold.