Reason #1: Atlético are pretty heavy underdogs. Last season - and even the season before - Atlético Madrid were tipped to exorcise the 2014 Champions League final demons. In both cases, Atlético failed to take opportunities that made themselves available and Real Madrid walked away victorious. This time, there’s not much love for Atleti, and while Madrid are not expected to sail comfortably into the June 3 final, there seems to be a general feeling that los blancos will progress nonetheless. And why not? This is the deepest and most talented team in Europe even when not on song. They are the holders and reigning world champions. They have knocked out Atleti three years running. FiveThirtyEight’s forecast says that Madrid stand a 63 percent chance of advancing.
And that’s just fine with los colchoneros, who rode a wave of blissful anonymity past Barcelona and Chelsea three years ago. A relative lack of attention carried Diego Simeone and co. past Bayern Munich and Barcelona again last year. Back in September, Bayern were widely expected to top Group D - and Atlético reeled off five straight wins to secure the group before the last matchday.
The underdog mentality forms the strands of Atlético’s DNA. It is a part of the club’s history, and under Simeone it has carried them to previously unthinkable heights. This tie is another chance to show that that mentality can do the trick once more.
Reason #2: Atlético are more comfortable over two legs. Sure, Atlético have won three finals this decade, but bar the 2012 Europa League final, the team’s best performances under Simeone have come generally over two legs. This began with the way Atleti destroyed its competition on the way to winning the Europa League in 2012 and expertly navigated a tricky knockout stage with crucial away goals on the way to the 2014 final. Atleti’s defensive dominance was the catalyst for the 2016 final run, along with the aforementioned penchant for away goals.
Atlético could not advance past the quarterfinal stage in 2015 due to conservatism and Arda Turan’s idiocy (neither of which make sense even today). But Cholo’s setup - a mean, Diego Godín-marshaled defense transitioning into an electric, Antoine Griezmann-led counterattack - lends itself to success in knockout football. Combine that with the successes in two-legged football throughout this decade - two Europa League triumphs, a Copa del Rey triumph, a Supercopa win - and you have a substantial backlog detailing that this team is more at home over 180 minutes.
Reason #3: Atlético will get a big reward for keeping the first leg close. If Real Madrid fly out of the traps and build a big advantage at the Santiago Bernabéu or if Atlético fail to score and lose the first leg, this reason will not matter. BUT. Should this head back to the Vicente Calderón tight - think 0-1, 1-1, 2-1, maybe 0-0 - Atleti will get 90 (and hopefully no more, people will have heart attacks) meaningful minutes in front of what may be the wildest Calderón crowd of the Simeone Era.
The return leg will be Atlético’s penultimate match at the 51-year-old ground, not to mention the final European contest and final derbi. I can’t imagine the kind of tifo that will be unveiled. The Frente Atlético ultras will be in full voice. The night will crackle and the memories, good or bad, will live on for many, many years. Real Madrid won 3-0 at the Calderón back in November, but this is expected to be a different animal.
And in case you haven’t heard, Atlético have a decent record at home in the Champions League under Simeone: 17 wins and one loss from 22 matches, with 18 clean sheets and five goals conceded. The last goal Atleti conceded at the Calderón in the Champions League quarterfinals or later was scored by Tijani Babangida of Ajax on March 19, 1997.