Real Madrid legend Michel Salgado hopes the power of Los Blancos’ intimidating “history” will prove the difference in Lisbon.
Diego Simeone’s Atletico are riding the crest of a wave ahead of the Lisbon showpiece after stunning heavyweights Real and Barcelona to lift the La Liga title for the first time in 18 years.
For Salgado – who cut a fearsome figure at right-back for a decade at the Bernabeu – the situation is similar to when his own side lifted Europe’s premier club competition with victory against fellow Spaniards Valencia in 2000.
That season Real finished two points and two places behind Valencia in La Liga, but made light of the difference with a convincing 3-0 victory in Paris.
Salgado – who also won the trophy two years later in Glasgow with a 2-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen – believes the fact Real are in pursuit of a landmark 10th European Cup triumph could influence proceedings this weekend against their opponents.
“In 2000, it was said in the approach of the game that the favourites were Valencia as they were having an amazing year,” the 38-year-old said. “They were really fit and very strong, but when we started to play the final it was easier than we thought.
“The Real Madrid shirt means a lot, with the badge and the history. Hopefully Real can put everything in and we can win it. In the final, we hopefully can see that history count.”
Real and Atletico have enjoyed contrasting fortunes. The latter’s domestic championship this term was just their 10th, a number that pales into insignificance compared to Real’s 32.
This disparity is further magnified in Europe’s elite club competition, with the closest Atletico have got to claiming the European Cup that Los Blancos have won nine times, a replayed final defeat to Bayern Munich 40 years ago.
“When you reach a final it is important to have experience in games like that,” Salgado, who is now director of football at Spanish Soccer Schools in Dubai Sports City, added. “Atletico have not been there since they lost to Bayern. We have to make Real Madrid’s superior experience count.”
Real have been obsessed with securing ‘La Decima’ since beating Bayer Leverkusen in 2002 thanks to Zinedine Zidane’s iconic volley.
Carlo Ancelotti is the first coach to guide Real to the final since then, with the Italian also claiming the Copa del Rey in a productive first season in charge.
But he should be under no illusion that those achievements will make up for defeat to Atletico.
Salgado said: “Real Madrid have already won the Copa del Rey, it is a big trophy, but it is not a trophy Real want the one they are looking for when they start the season. We have to be honest.”
Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid know each other extremely well, and there will be no tactical surprises.
The two clubs from the Spanish capital have met on five occasions in the last 12 months, with the honours evenly split at two wins apiece and one draw (if you include Atletico’s extra time Copa del Rey as a win).
They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and both have a clear understanding of how they can go about winning the game.
As always with two well-matched teams, the outcome could well be decided by the small details and the ability of the respective teams to win the key battlegrounds all over the pitch.
We know where those battles will be – the question is, who will prevail?
Aside from the fitness of Cristiano Ronaldo, easily Real Madrid’s biggest concern is the absence of Xabi Alonso, who recklessly earned a suspension by fouling Bayern Munich’s Bastian Schweinsteiger when his team were already 4-0 in the semi-final.
Alonso’s absence is even more important due to the fact that Real don’t have viable cover. Asier Illarramendi, the most likely replacement, has endured a poor first season at the Bernabeu since last summer’s move from Real Sociedad, and looks mentally unready for the task of taking on Atletico’s ferociously competitive central duo of captain Gabi and either Tiago or Mario Suarez.
Without Alonso, there has to be a question mark whether Real can establish the control and stability which would give Luka Modric and Angel Di Maria the opportunity to make them tick.
Atletico are capable of simply bullying their opponents off the ball and, in recent weeks, Illarramendi has sadly looked a prime potential victim of bullying.
Madrid forwards Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, it goes without saying, will play a key role in Real’s attacking plans for the game and could easily prove to the the match-winners.
But a point that’s less often grasped is just how important fullbacks Juanfran and Filipe Luis are to Atletico’s offensive strategy. They are the catalysts for their team’s attacks, using their composure on the ball and excellent crossing ability to provide the width, allowing Koke and Arda Turan to drift into more central positions.
So it’s crucial for Ronaldo and Bale, as well as attempting to create chances and unleash shots on goal, to take care of their defensive duties by effectively man-marking their opposite numbers. If they don’t, Atletico could get plenty of joy down the flanks.
The two most important goals in Atletico Madrid’s recent history have both been scored by central defenders with headers from corners: Diego Godin to secure the title against Barcelona last week, and Miranda to win last season’s Copa del Rey against Real.
Those cases are far from isolated examples of Atletico’s set-piece prowess, with Diego Costa (if fit), Raul Garcia, Tiago and Mario Suarez also very dangerous in the air, while Koke and Gabi can both be counted upon for excellent deliveries into the box.
Furthermore, Diego Simeone and his assistant Mono Burgos regularly dream up creative set-piece routines to catch the opposition unawares, nearly winning the title with one when David Villa forced a brilliant save from Malaga’s Willy Caballero two weeks ago.
Real will know all this, but their dead-ball defending has been very poor at times this season, with badly-defended goals from corners for Valencia’s Jeremy Mathieu and Real Valladolid’s Humberto Osorio recently helping to end their La Liga challenge.
Considering how little there is to choose between the teams and their excellent defensive records, it would be no surprise if this final becomes the sixth in 14 years to go all the way to a penalty shootout.
If that’s the case, we will have the fascinating sight of Iker Casillas going head to head with Thibaut Courtois – arguably the former best goalkeeper in the world up against the man who will likely inherit that label for the next decade.
Casillas has a mixed record in shootouts, helping Spain to crucial spot-kick wins against Italy (in 2008) and Portugal (in 2012) in their European Championship successes, but also ending up on the losing side for Real against Bayern Munich in the 2012 Champions League semi-final.
Belgian international Courtois, on the other hand, has not yet appeared in a shootout, but his size and shot-stopping ability makes him a formidable barrier from the 12-yard mark and there could be no better way for the on-loan Chelsea keeper to wave goodbye to his current club than inspiring them to a dramatic victory.
The man set to replace Diego Costa in Atletico Madrid’s starting lineup admits the opportunity to play in a Champions League final is a “dream come true.”
Raul Garcia, who has spent six seasons with Los Rojiblancos, is set to come into the starting line-up in place of his team’s leading scorer, who is struggling to overcome a hamstring injury.
Garcia is probably the closest thing Atletico can offer to a direct replacement for Costa, who has been undergoing strenuous treatment all week in an attempt to overcome the niggling hamstring injury which has significantly restricted his playing time in recent weeks.
Although Costa took part in Friday’s training session, his availability for the final will be a lastminute decision for Diego Simeone, and Garcia would provide an element of aggression and muscularity that other attacking options – Adrian and Diego Ribas – cannot offer.
Even if he doesn’t play up front, Garcia’s versatility could see him line up on the right-hand side of midfield if Turkish midfielder Arda Turan fails to recover from a hip injury, and the 27-year-old could not conceal his excitement ahead of the meeting with rivals Real Madrid.
“For any player it is a dream come true,” said Garcia, who has started nine games in his team’s Champions League campaign and scored four goals. “We will give it everything we have got.”
Although Real are coming intothe game as favourites, Garcia is confident of his team’s chances of success after his team gained a victory and a draw from their two league meetings with their neighbours this season.
Arguing that their La Liga title success should ensure Atletico have nothing to be afraid of, Garcia insisted his team-mates should not be daunted by the scale of their challenge, adding: “We know the level we are playing at now.
“If we keep doing what we have been doing, we will have no problems winning the final.”
Garcia was also keen to underscore the team ethic which has been a key feature of Atletico’s success this season, recognising the possibility that Atletico may have to wait a very long time for their next opportunity to claim the biggest prize in European football.
“This is the biggest game in the history of Atletico Madrid,” he said. “I am proud to defend this shirt. More than ever, our confidence and desire will be crucial.”