It is typically poor form to posit questions in an article, but my working thesis tonight centers on the following two queries (and supplied answers, which you, dear reader, may find disagreeable):
Did Atlético Madrid deserve to win the 2015-16 UEFA Champions League? Yes.
Did Atlético Madrid deserve to win the 2016 UEFA Champions League final? No.
To me, there is a distinction, and I will explain below in full detail.
Atlético's run to the 2016 Champions League final was enormously difficult, especially compared to its opponents. The rivals Atleti overcame in the knockout stage - PSV, Barcelona and Bayern Munich - have combined to win 23 European Cups. PSV very nearly knocked Atleti out at the Calderón in the Round of 16; a dramatic penalty shootout ended with Juanfran slotting home after Luciano Narsingh struck the crossbar. Barcelona took full advantage of a Fernando Torres red card to win at Camp Nou in the quarterfinals but los rojiblancos put in a spectacular defensive performance in the second leg to deservedly advance to the semifinals at the holders' expense. In the last four, Saúl Ñíguez gave his team a lead heading to Munich and although Bayern breached the defense twice, an Antoine Griezmann away goal in the second leg sent Atlético to Milan.
Three former European Cup winners. Three eventual league champions. Atleti dispatched all three on its way to a second final in three years.
This felt different. Atlético had an extra week to prepare. Diego Simeone could call on a full squad for the game. Atleti were deeper, with more directness, more technical ability, more options in attack - in addition to Europe's meanest defense. This was the year. Atleti would lift the European Cup for the first time in its 113-year history with a win in the final over its eternal city rivals.
But in that final, things went wrong. Atlético made critical errors that added up over two-plus hours and cost the club its first Champions League win. Honestly, as bravely as the players fought Saturday, as well as they played for most of normal time, as difficult as it was to crawl over the finish line and into penalties...
...Atlético Madrid did not deserve to win the final.
I'm sorry. It's true.
Disagree with me. Vehemently, if you must. Poke holes in the upcoming analysis like it's bubble wrap. But it's the truth. Atlético started too slowly, its best player missed a crucial penalty at a crucial moment and both goalkeeper and right back failed to come up with the goods in the shootout.
The first 20 minutes were very poor. Atlético were not under much pressure in defense but struggled to get the ball past the center circle, making things much too easy for its opponent. Terrible set piece defending led to a stupendous save from Oblak, followed by a 15th minute goal (which may have been offside, although who really cares) that tucked just under his backside and rolled over the line.
Strike one. Atleti missed a chance at a fast, hell-raising start by ceding the initiative to its opponent through sloppy possession, nervous clearances and fouls in dangerous positions. Simeone's men recovered somewhat, though; the final 15-plus minutes of the half saw Atleti boss possession and generate a couple chances, albeit from distance and through the middle, which was blocked off very well. Atleti were reduced to slow buildup that led to merely ok chances - I compared it to a funeral procession. The shoe was on the other foot.
In the second half, Atlético began to attack through different points, particularly on the right wing. Juanfran was critical as the second half moved along, as was substitute Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, who had a field day against both right backs he faced. That brilliant duo combined for Atleti's only goal 11 minutes from time, the former delivering a sumptuous cross for the latter to acrobatically slot into the top of the net.
However, more than half an hour earlier, Atlético received strike two. Antoine Griezmann's missed penalty less than three minutes into the second half - when the Frenchman opted for pure power over perfect placement - was arguably the single most damning aspect of the loss. Atleti were afforded an opportunity it never had the chance to receive in Lisbon and promptly threw it away. If Griezmann simply tried to place that penalty (which, naturally, he did in the shootout), Atleti equalize and probably go on to win, given its dominance from approximately the 30th minute to the 80th minute.
So, into extra time and penalties we went. Filipe Luís' and Koke's bodies simply gave out in extra time from nine months of grueling work and both had to be substituted for defensive players (Lucas and Thomas Partey) - neither substitution was one Simeone wanted to make and the changes led to the Argentine's decision to play it safe and try to win on penalties. Unfortunately for him, the club and its fans, the fourth man in the shootout - often one of the team's most reliable players - was responsible for strike three.
With the score 3-3. Juanfran stepped up to the spot. The Round of 16 hero struck the ball with the side of his boot and cannoned it off the bottom of the left upright. At that point...you knew, didn't you? The "Pupas" stigma ("jinxed ones" - think of it as Spursing on steroids) had officially returned. The next penalty taker scored his penalty (into the right corner, just like the four before it), ripped off his jersey again in an imbecilic display of strength and secured yet another European Cup for his team.
Still, I remain more dismayed by the 2014 final than the 2016 final. Atlético were robbed in 2014. Injury problems in the run-in to the final combined with Bjorn Kuipers' atrocious, one-sided officiating led to a late equalizer and an extra-time session that was similar to a show trial. But the purpose of this piece is not to rehash Lisbon.
So I leave you as I started, questions answered, mind cleared: Atlético Madrid may have deserved to lift the European Cup this year, but not with the crucial mistakes it made in the showpiece - the game that determines it all.