One match, one passion, one dream, one city. For the first time in the history of the European Cup and theChampions League, the final will be disputed by two teams from the same town as Real Madrid meetAtletico Madrid in Lisbon on May 24. All eyes on Spain, then, and a derby with a difference.
Madrid and Atleti are deserved finalists. Carlo Ancelotti’s side battered Bayern Munich 5-0 on aggregate in the semi-finals to move to within 90 minutes of their Decima dream but Atletico are there on merit too after impressively knocking out Chelsea with a brave 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday. It’s the first all-Spanish final since the meeting between Madrid and Valencia in 2000 and, perhaps surprisingly, Barcelona are not involved.
The Catalan club are Spain’s last winners of the competition (in 2009 and 2011) and have dominated domestically in recent years, winning La Liga in four of the last five seasons. The Blaugrana had appeared destined to meet Madrid in a Champions League final at some stage, with both sides in the last four in each of the previous three seasons, but before a Clasico in Europe’s greatest game comes a derbi.
That is a success story not only for Diego Simeone’s super side but also for La Liga, derided not so long ago as a two-team league. Yet two teams from that league will now dispute the continent’s foremost fixture – and they are not even the two most would have expected.
On top of that, Barcelona were knocked out by Atleti in the quarter-finals, Sevilla eliminated city rivals Betis in the Europa League en route to a last-four clash with Valencia, so of the other Primera Division sides in continental competition this term, only Real Sociedad have seen their European hopes ended by a non-Spanish team, the Basques missing out in the group stages in their Champions League campaign. It is a remarkable return for Spanish football in 2013-14 and shows that there is a lot more to La Liga than Barcelona and Madrid.
Atletico’s story, however, is the most amazing of all. Languishing in 10th place when Simeone took over from Gregorio Manzano in 2011-12, Los Rojiblancos went on to win the Europa League that season and with virtually the same squad (even after selling their best player, Radamel Falcao, last summer), they now sit at the head of Europe’s top table.
Almost all of Atleti’s squad were in place prior to Simeone’s arrival, with only David Villa (a cut-price summer signing from Barcelona), Diego (who was on loan at the club in 2011-12 and returned in January) and a few fringe players added by the Argentine in recent seasons.
Simeone’s success has been in the ability to work with a tight budget and make this group gel. After the Europa League, the club claimed the Uefa Super Cup in 2012 and then the Copa del Rey last season by beating Madrid for the first time since 1999. Now, Los Rojiblancos are two wins from claiming La Liga and also on the verge of winning Europe’s premier club competition. It is surely the greatest impact made by any coach in modern football.
And while Atleti’s ascent has been made possible on a shoestring, with a small squad and relying on an on-loan goalkeeper (Thibaut Courtois), youth-team graduates (Gabi, Koke, Mario Suarez) and substitutes who wouldn’t feature at many big clubs (Emiliano Insua, Jose Sosa, Toby Alderweireld), Real Madrid’s march to the top could not have been more different.
After dispensing with coach Jose Mourinho in the summer following a disappointing season in 2012-13 which ended with a third successive semi-final exit in the Champions League and Copa defeat to Atletico, Madrid brought in Carlo Ancelotti. They splashed a record €100 million (£86m) on Gareth Bale to lead an exciting new project on the pitch, with Cristiano Ronaldo soon putting pen to paper on a new deal to make him the world’s highest-paid player.
Real have already won the Copa del Rey this season after beating Barcelona in the final earlier in April andLos Blancos are still in with an outside chance of winning La Liga. Their success, however, has come after huge investment in the playing squad (Ronaldo and Bale are the two most expensive players in the history of football) and a bumper contract for Ancelotti to lead this new project, with winning the club a Champions League for the first time since 2002 his prime objective.
“Obviously I’m very happy,” Ancelotti told the press. “We have to enjoy these positive moments. It’s a great satisfaction to lead Madrid to the Champions League final for the first time in 12 years.”
At Atleti, meanwhile, Simeone has had to fight to retain many of his players due to debts and been forced to work with a small squad punching above their weight.
“I let it all out after the third goal [against Chelsea],” he said following his Mourinho-esque touchline celebration. “We are fighting against rivals with greater financial power. Madrid are a powerful club and they are used to being in these situations but we have been waiting many years to reach the final.”
In many ways, then, little has changed. Atletico, a club always associated with the working class, up against the rich rival from across town, long linked with the establishment, wealth and power.
Two teams, two philosophies, one city and only one winner. All eyes will soon be on Madrid and the game’s greatest derbi. Historic.