Sunday 18 February 2018

Atletico strive to defy history and psychology in final repeat

'Simeone is trying to mentally reframe it all' Photo: Getty
'Simeone is trying to mentally reframe it all' Photo: Getty

Miguel Delaney

Ever since Atletico Madrid's Spanish title challenge ended two weeks ago, Diego Simeone has spent almost all of his time intensely devising and trying out sophisticated new defensive approaches, in the hope it can finally complete their challenge for the Champions League.

The side's midfielders have been given complicated pressing instructions, while defenders have been working in co-ordinated units. It isn't pretty, but it was highly effective in the quarter-finals against Barcelona, and is possibly the only way to try and subdue the next best attack in the world in Real Madrid.

It is also the only way, Simeone believes, to make this restaged international version of the Madrid derby "50-50". The approach, however, emphasises something else about Saturday's Champions League final.

Atletico and Real may be closer in terms of overall quality and geographical distance than any other finalists in history - bar, of course, when they met in 2014 - but the two once more sum up a grand divide in continental football too: the super-clubs against the rest.

As the wealthiest side in the world, Real have almost reached the San Siro by default, their array of expensive stars taking turns to individually step up during underwhelming team performances in a relatively forgiving run to the final. As a club with only a fraction of their neighbours' resources, Atletico have reached Milan by bloody-minded defiance, their ever-changing squad maintaining the defensive ferocity that has frustrated so many richer attacks.

It points to another difference. A project-builder of a manager, Simeone has infused Atletico with a deep cohesion that makes them superior to the sum of their parts. Real have instead had to find a manager in Zinedine Zidane who is more an overseer, someone who has the presence and personality to facilitate so much talent fitting together. It is a very different type of quality, for a very different type of club. It probably revealed more than anyone intended when Cristiano Ronaldo said Zidane's greatest quality since becoming a manager is that "he listens".

This then is a final between a brilliant collective and a collection of brilliant stars; individual attack against team defence.

Yet, for all that Simeone's intensive psychological work has made Atletico so good, it could be psychology that is the issue. Real do not just have the advantage of so many elite players having done it before and a history of 10 European Cups against Atletico's none. The Bernabeu club also have the advantage of how so many of those players actually won that 10th trophy in 2014. Sergio Ramos headed a last-minute equaliser to fire a 4-1 extra-time win that will be as haunting to Atletico as anything in their erratic history. It has already told since then.

Even though Atletico have actually dominated recent domestic matches between the two, they lost their last Champions League tie to another very late Real goal, last season's quarter-final. The danger is that, when it comes right down to it, the weight of that knowledge and all that history will bear down on Atletico; that they will suddenly become conscious they have always been Madrid's secondary club; that Real and Ronaldo will remember their supremacy. Atletico have fought to get here. Real assume this is their rightful place.

It is probably why Simeone has spent so much time insisting that this match is "not revenge - it's a new opportunity". He's trying to mentally reframe it all just as he has already reframed so much of their history this season. The club's worst ever moment prior to 2014 was Bayern Munich's last-minute equaliser to eventually win the European Cup in the 1974 final, and they have already banished those ghosts by defeating the Germans in this season's semi-finals.

Will this be a redemption tour, or will Real and Ronaldo redeem their season? Even though Real have often been so unconvincing throughout this campaign, the Portuguese has put in the performances of a player on one of those personal missions to put things right. He also knows it can seal a Ballon d'Or, and so soon after Leo Messi's fifth seemed to have definitively settled the debate.

Ronaldo's contribution might be enough to tell in a game as tight as this, unless Simeone has found a way to tighten the pitch even more. He has to close the gap in so many ways.

Sunday Indo Sport

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