Saturday May 24 2014

Madrid derby: Case of bigger team up against better team

Ancelotti’s Real Madrid come into tonight’s Champions

Ancelotti’s Real Madrid come into tonight’s Champions League final as favourites. Agencies photo 


It is just as well that Atletico Madrid have recently shed off the inferiority complex they have perpetually harboured in regard to their more illustrious cross-town rivals, or tonight’s game would have been a no-contest.

Until the Copa Del Rey final at the backend last season Real Madrid had routinely beaten Atletico for over a decade, making a mockery of the city’s derby and ensuring that all that mattered in Spain was the El Clasico against a more worthy foe more than 300 miles away.

To flash a long history of sporting subjugation and its even worse after-effects out of their systems in so short a time, it has taken a manager with a strong-headedness so infectious that seeing Ateltico in action this season has been akin to watching eleven snarling Diego Simeones.

They have nothing left to prove after embarking on the arduous adventure that has seen them collect Europa, Copa Del Rey and La Liga trophies along the rocky way, but for any lingering doubting Thomases they have to do it one more time, in Lisbon tonight.

That is where their newfound mental strength, that which they so displayed in coming back from a goal down to stop Barcelona from literally stealing the La Liga in the intimidating cauldron that is the Nou Camp, must come in handy.

Breaking European football’s most obtrusive duopoly last Saturday by toppling Barcelona and Real Madrid (Celtic and Rangers do not belong to this conversation I am afraid) should hold them in good stead, for lesser opponents have been crushed under the weight of history on occasions like these, lending to the power of pedigree.

Many will argue that Valencia had been consistently playing the better football in the run-up to the final they lost to Real Madrid in 2000 (they finished above Real in the La Liga that season), or that Kaiserslautern who had come into the Champions League as German champions in 1998 should have been better than losing the 1999 quarterfinal to Bayern 6-0 on aggregate.

Followers of the English Premier League will know that Liverpool bettered Chelsea in the Champions League a couple of times during the Mourinho-Benitez era even when the Blues had the stronger team, or that all their flowing football could not stop Arsenal from losing home and away to Man United in the 2009 semifinals.

It begs the question if indeed AC Milan in their current shambolic state would not tame the in-form Juventus if they met in a European knockout round (as the Rossoneri did in winning the 2003 final at Old Trafford against a Juve side that was dominating the Serie A), or if the struggling Marseille who now live in the shadow of PSG in Ligue One might not shock their filthy-rich rivals in a European setting.

It is a scenario that has replicated itself plenty a time when clubs from the same country have collided in Europe; Atletico beware of a reoccurrence.
First-time winners have been the rarity that has added clout to the pedigree phenomenon which in many cases can be simply explained away as the creation of European elitism by money.

Atletico have just overcome that at home and in so doing underlined their advantages over Real Madrid on the pitch, where it all gets sorted out in the end. As a unit they have better balance and will outdo Real for numbers in the middle and at the back should, as expected, Carlo Ancelotti go with four forwards in Benzema, Ronaldo, Bale and Di Maria, as he has done frequently.

Against Bayern, Real were not exposed for that partly because the natural instincts of original wingers Di Maria and Bale (the latter was a full back actually) had them doubling back to help out defensively, and partly because Bayern largely possessed without probing. Atletico will be more direct and Real will be opened up thus, with the pressure piling on Luka Modric and Sami Khedira, in Xabi Alonso’s absence.

Dark clouds hang over the participation of Diego Costa and Arda Turan on the one side and then Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema on the other – or their effectiveness should they insist - but Atletico have proved that they adapt better to the absence of their stars than Real, who would dearly miss defender Pepe too were he to fail to recover.

What Simeone gives away to cool, wise head Ancelotti in experience and know-how on a day like this, the Argentine makes up for with contagious passion and meticulous attention to detail.

It took Chelsea fifteen years to become the next first-time winners after Dortmund in 1997, yet Atletico want to emulate the unusual feat in just two years, against a side who want this badly as it would the club’s iconic tenth (the La Decima). If there is a team built to defy that and all the other odds aforementioned though, it is this Atletico.

They are the better team in the right sense of that word, and have what it takes to better the bigger one.
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