Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid will play another Madrid Derby on Saturday, but this one is a little bigger than the rest. For an opposing perspective on tomorrow - IT'S TOMORROW - I asked Managing Madrid editor Kiyan Sobhani a few pressing questions on the 2016 Champions League final.
Cristiano Ronaldo has been in and out of training this week. What is the latest on his status?
Kiyan: He's fine. He's actually 100%, if his own words are anything to go by. It would take something truly horrific and post-apocalyptic to keep Ronaldo out of the biggest stage in European Football.
It's fair to say Real Madrid didn't play all that well against Manchester City (although they didn't really need to). What stood out most to you in that tie and what do you expect to be cleaned up ahead of Saturday?
Kiyan: I'm in a minority here, but I thought Real Madrid performed really well against Manchester City over two legs - particularly in the Bernabeu. The next day, we had to put up with a disproportionate amount of salty journalists downplaying Real Madrid's achievement. City were crap, Real Madrid weren't threatened - it went on. Even Pellegrini, a man with a sharp and respectable character, put out some cringe-worthy quotes in the post-game pressers, the worst being 'Real Madrid couldn't create any chances'.
It spurred me to say something to keep everyone's reality in check, so I wrote a column about it (http://bit.ly/1XV8mYm). The truth is, this team has endured a lot of trials this season, and their evolution under Zidane over the course of these last few months has been really impressive.
Toni Kroos and Pepe were the standouts against City, which is really good news for Real Madrid. In many ways, those two are an important part of the team's spine, and for them to peak now, with the entire season on the line, is timely. Whether their - and the team's - success can be replicated against Atletico is an entirely different debate. Atletico are elite in the way they put pressure and hound you when you have possession, while City were just a toothless mess who couldn't induce any kind of pressure that made any of our midfielders sweat. On Saturday, Kroos won't be as comfortable as he was against Manchester City.
For long stretches of the season, the defensive midfielder slot has been earmarked for Casemiro, but man, Kroos has grown so much in that role and it's amazing to see how he's been dictating play in midfield as of late. His intelligence has always somewhat masked how difficult it's been playing as a DM, particularly last season when Modric was injured and Kroos had to weather storms single-handedly alongside Sergio Ramos who Ancelotti had to bring in as a DM. Now to go along with his intelligence, Kroos has more experience and better players surrounding him more consistently.
Casemiro has helped relieve Kroos of defensive duties, but the eternal debate right now is whether he should actually start on Saturday. Not everyone trusts Casemiro yet for such a high-profile clash, and given at how suffocating Atletico's press can be, it's hard to see a scenario where Isco's assistance with the ball wouldn't trump Casemiro's physicality. We don't want to get into it deeply now, but Isco provides a whole different dynamic. He's like a key which switches Marcelo into beast mode. Those two have always provided a dangerous 1-2 punch on the left, reading each other's game and getting out of tight spaces brilliantly. Bonus - Isco always has Marcelo's back. If the Brazilian takes a gamble to go forward, Isco veers to cover the abandoned space, and has been really good in his off-ball movement and defensive assurance.
Zinedine Zidane took over in what Diego Simeone termed a "tricky moment." Have the biggest differences since Benítez' sacking come tactically or in the dressing room?
Kiyan: I firmly believe that Real Madrid's 'success' -- used loosely because the team hasn't won anything yet, though they are in a much better place now than they were six months ago -- starts with Zidane's ability to inspire the players. The atmosphere in the locker-room, reportedly, under Rafa Benitez was toxic. With Zidane, they don't have a brilliant tactician to look to, but they respect every part of him. For one, he was a superstar, one of the best to ever kick a football, and that means a lot as a player. Benitez was the antithesis of what Zidane exudes as a footballer.
Zidane has morphed into a terrific coach now. It's easy to forget just how raw he is because he's come so far, and so quickly. He had a really impressive tactical approach in Real Madrid's win at the Camp Nou in April, and it has all just soared from there.
To answer your question - it started in the dressing room and has now trickled into tactical improvement. Bringing in Zidane was a gamble, put the Frenchman is ahead of schedule.
Is there reason to expect Real's end-of-season league form to carry over into this game?
Kiyan: It would be naive to think Real Madrid's form won't be a positive influence for them in this match. It's all coming together at just the right time for Real Madrid, but I'm not sure it necessarily gives them an edge over Atletico. Simeone is a master at motivating his team, so at the very least, the momentum evens out. It will be a blood bath.
Some have said that Real Madrid faced an "easy" route to the final - none of the three teams faced in the knockout stage have qualified for next season's group phase yet. What do you make of this perception?
Kiyan: Anyone who mentions Real Madrid's path to the final being an easy one is completely right. Seriously, no arguments there. In fact, we all mentioned several times on our podcasts throughout the season - if Real Madrid don't draw the easiest opponent every round then they are probably not where they are.
And that's OK. There's a level of acceptance of the team's entombed state when Zidane took over. Real Madrid needed to buy time with favorable draws until they figured it out, and holy hell has it ever worked out beautifully.
It might be hard to believe, but Real Madrid have conceded fewer goals (5) than Atlético in this season's Champions League (7). Who or what is most responsible for this?
Kiyan: Many things. Real Madrid weren't drawn against juggernauts like Bayern and Barca who can carve you defensively in so many ways. The opponents were more subdued than those of Atletico's. Casemiro has helped provide balance, and Keylor Navas has been an absolute monster.
De facto, Navas has been at least half the reason Real Madrid look good defensively on a statistical level. He's been, as I'm sure you know, just incredible.
Casemiro seems to be a somewhat polarizing figure among Real supporters. How important will he be in the final?
Kiyan: If he starts, he's just as important as the other 10 players on the pitch. The question comes back to 'is him starting conducive to breaking down Simeone's defensive scheme?'. Odds are he will start, and if he does, he will need to disrupt Atletico's aggressive nature the way he did in the Calderon back in the Fall.
Casemiro has the right attitude for a match like this, but he also has bad habits. His positioning is wonky, his distribution is below-average, and he could turn on the panic button if Atletico are smart enough to collapse on him when he has the ball. We'll see. He's like a walking stampede, and Real Madrid need him to be fully composed in a match like this.
Who is a surprise player you believe can make an impact on Saturday?
Kiyan: I'm not sure it will be a surprise, but Marcelo is my x-factor here. Atletico won't allow you to play the normal plan you draw up, and there will be plenty of hiccups in Real Madrid's flow on Saturday. Marcelo possesses some kind of wizard unpredictability that could throw Atletico's shape out of whack, similar to the way Di Maria's did in 2014.
X-factor #2 - Isco. In fact, that Isco/Marcelo combination overall is hugely important.
Kiyan: Real Madrid 2-1 Atletico de Madrid.