When Atletico and Real kick off their Champions League final encounter at the San Siro later this month, one side will already have a lot more to prove than their opponent. For the young team from the less-flashier side of Madrid, the final has handed them one last chance to impress their international coaches ahead of this summer’s EURO 2016.
The most notable players that should relish this opportunity are the Spaniards within the team. While Juanfran is a guaranteed starter in France in June, other members of the squad aren’t so certain of their place. Despite Koke’s involvement in the national side since late 2013, the same season in which he helped spearhead Atleti to their first La Liga title since 1996, he has failed to become a regular name in Vicente del Bosque’s starting eleven.
The 24-year-old has gradually introduced himself on the international stage, starting in 5 qualifiers, but it seems as if Del Bosque still needs convincing that the Atleti midfielder is worthy of a regular berth. His counterpart in midfield, Saul, was certain to miss out on a call-up, much like Spanish veteran Fernando Torres, but the form of both players in the latter part of the season has increased the calls for them to be included in the 23-man squad. It’s unlikely that del Bosque will decide both players’ chances on the basis of one game, as monumental as the fixture is, but by boasting a Champions League winners’ medal, los Rojiblancos’ Spanish players will prove that they contain as much of a winning pedigree as their Barcelona and Real Madrid counterparts.
Looking at the eleven players that started the opening World Cup match versus Netherlands two years ago, eight of them tasted success in both their domestic league as well as Europe’s premier competition. It’s obvious that del Bosque, a multiple Champions League and La Liga winner himself, values the winning experience that his players possess. It’s why he stuck with Xavi in his midfield for the crucial defeat to Chile in game two of the World Cup group stage, despite the former Barcelona man struggling in the opening match up.
As well as refusing to drop Xavi, del Bosque continued with Iker Casillas in goal, following his mistake-ridden performance that led to Spain’s shocking 5-1 defeat. The coach, who led his country to victory in the European Championship four years ago, had a strong preference for picking Barcelona or Real players in his starting line-ups, due to their familiarity with success.
Should Atleti come out as victors in the highly-anticipated final, it will be hard for del Bosque to overlook the contributions of Saul, Koke and Torres, to Atleti’s historical triumph. All three hold as much value as each other in Simeone’s well-organized setup at the Vicente Calderon. Torres has taken on the responsibility of becoming the reliable goalscorer that Atletico needed after the struggles of summer signings Luciano Vietto and Jackson Martinez, while the Spaniard has continuously obliged when asked to put in a defensive shift. Saul and Koke are as versatile as each other, epitomising the identity in which Simeone’s teams are associated with; hassling and pressuring the opposition when not in possession before displaying their creative sides the moment Atletico retrieve the ball. Koke has provided 14 assists in the league this season, a clear example of the talents the Spaniard is blessed with on the offensive side of the game.
Despite Torres already holding a Champions League winners medal from his time at Chelsea, his decreasing performances until this year meant that a remarkable turnaround in form was required for him to even be considered for del Bosque’s squad. It seems as if he may have just done enough to warrant a call-up, especially when you consider the argument put forward by our very own Robbie Dunne as to why Nando should be picked. The physical attributes and skill that all three have shown in the last year should be ample proof for del Bosque to award them the roles they deserve this summer. If there’s one thing we’ve seen in the well-renowned manager’s time at Spain, however, it’s that he seems to value the mental aspect as much as the physical side. Atleti’s Spanish trio may need to be donned with a Champions League winners’ medal before their coach views them as legitimate starters in a major European tournament. Luckily for them, 28th of May is only around the corner.