The day has come. Alea iacta est. The die is cast.
It is the game of our lives; a game that a squad of approximately 23 players has prepared for since July 2015. And the rival had to be our neighbors in Madrid. Atlético Madrid will have to win its first Champions League against its eternal rival; it is the only way. The mythical stadium of San Siro will be the setting of such a widely-anticipated game.
Real Madrid arrived in Milan with practically all players available for the final. Only Raphael Varane and Álvaro Arbeloa will be out of Zinedine Zidane’s team for the game, both due to injury. Real have never won an official game at the San Siro. Food for thought.
"New opportunity" > Revenge
Revenge is probably the first word that will enter your head when thinking about this final, especially considering what happened in Lisbon a little more than two years ago. Well, Diego Simeone does not agree.
"I think revenge is a negative word, because it remembers losses, bad moments," he said in an interview with uefa.com. "Instead, opportunity speaks about optimism, self-security and speaks about what is yet to come, about what we want: win the Champions League."
It seems strange that quotes so clear do not persuade somebody of the team’s mindset. If one cannot believe in Cholo now, after all he has achieved with the players, coaches and fans, when will one believe in him?
Furthermore, the manager related some quotes on how he and his boys face the fixture in a Friday press conference: "Training with the passion, competitiveness and intensity that this group has done since Lisbon drives me to believe in this league. We work in order to keep outdoing ourselves. Insistence makes these kinds of situations appear. The best this squad does is persevering, preparing, recovering and reinventing themselves without changing the identity of the team."
The keys to nullifying Real Madrid
Atlético are probably the best team in the world at canceling the virtues of their rivals. Simeone, his technical staff and players have excelled in making great sides look somewhat ordinary thanks to tactical positioning and remarkable intensity.
Depending on the version of Real Madrid that we will see on the field, the players vary. Los Blancos have deployed a tactical system based on counter attacks in the knockout rounds of this year’s Champions League. That’s why it won’t be a surprise if they cede ball possession during several stages of the game. This is something that Simeone knows and it is probably why Gareth Bale and his speed will draw lots of attention from the Atlético defense.
The emergence of Casemiro has supplied Real with more balance in the XI. However, the Brazilian midfielder won’t be the most skilled player in the field and could be subject to more pressure when on the ball. Atleti also will need to void Luka Modric and Toni Kroos’ ability to throw counters with long passes.
In other stages of the game, when Los Rojiblancos feel forced or simply decide to play deep, close to the edge of the area, stopping Modric and Marcelo could be essential. They are two of Real’s most imaginative players. The Croatian is good for both short passing and finding passes between the lines for his peers. Meanwhile the left back is able to surprise with sudden appearances near the opponent’s 18-yard box, where he can harm a rival with his dribbling or fast combinations with his forwards.
However, these games are often decided by the most unexpected players or the little details and Simeone is a genuine specialist in the last one. Carlos Simeone said some days ago his son was not able to sleep the last two days before the semifinal second leg against Bayern Munich. We prefer not to think about how many days Cholo has remained sleepless imagining those details in advance of this match.
Savic, the only change from Munich
We have mentioned several times Simeone’s tendency to introduce surprises in such important games. And that is something that he may have prepared for during the last two training sessions in Madrid; he decided to carry them out behind closed doors, with no journalists or members of the general public allowed.
Hence, we have few clues from the last training sessions regarding the starting XI that Simeone could choose for the final but all prior indications are it will be similar to the XI from Munich. The only doubt seems to be whether José Giménez or Stefan Savic will accompany Diego Godín in central defense. He has alternated between the two in training the past two weeks but the latest reports say to he will opt for the Montenegrin’s calm and experience over Josema’s bravery and…sense of adventure.
Juanfran and Filipe Luís will be on the wings. They will be responsible for stopping Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo and their heat maps could tell the story of the game. If they spend a good portion of the game in the rival half, Real could be in trouble.
Augusto will play deeper in a four-man midfield. We still remember the stunning performance he carried out in the Bernabéu in February’s derby and the hope is he plays just as well. The other members are well known: Gabi, Koke and Saúl Ñíguez - kilometers and kilometers of quality and sacrifice divided equally. Koke brings his vision, Saúl brings his appearances on the edge of the area and Gabi his omnipresence.
Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres will be in charge of scoring. Griezmann has a great chance to demonstrate that Simeone was not wrong when he included the Frenchman among the three best players in the world. El Niño will play in the "game of his life" and his experience in finals speaks for itself.
The whole squad traveled to Milan and Simeone will have to make omissions some minutes before kickoff. Lucas, Kranevitter, Óliver and Tiago are the main candidates.
Possible XI: Oblak; Juanfran, Savic, Godín, Filipe Luis; Augusto, Gabi, Saúl, Koke; Griezmann, Torres.
In: Oblak, Moyá, Godín, Giménez, Savic, Lucas, Filipe, Juanfran, Gámez, Tiago, Kranevitter, Augusto, Gabi, Koke, Saúl, Thomas, Óliver, Carrasco, Correa, Griezmann, Vietto, Torres.