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The Champions League is always a very exciting competition, but this season provided a few more edge of the seat encounters than most others. After a season of incredible football from many teams across Europe, we got to the final in Lisbon last night, which like almost every other game in this season, was exciting from start to finish. Atletico as always, worked had, fought till the end, and made things very difficult for the opposition, but at the end of the day, the sheer determination and energy from Real made the difference, as the Galacticos 2.0 made history by reaching La Decima.
Real Madrid: Casillas; Carvajal; Varane; Sergio Ramos; Coentrao (Marcelo, 59); Khedira (Izco, 59); Modric; Di Maria; Ronaldo; Bale; Benzema (Morata, 79).
Atletico Madrid: Courtois; Juanfran; Godin; Miranda; Filipe Luis (Alderweireld, 83); Gabi; Tiago; Koke; Raul Garcia (Sosa, 66); David Villa; Diego Costa (Adrian, 9).
Real Madrid 4-1 Atletico Madrid
To say that Real Madrid have been excellent in attack this season would be making an understatement. Carlo Ancelotti’s side have had spectacular performances, most notable a 4-0 away at the Allianz Arena in the previous round. The speed with which they break and hit the oppostion has concerned a lot of people. What many have failed to point out though, is the fact that this attacking success was built on an excellent midfield platform. The trio of Alonso, Modric, and Di Maria have been stupendous in setting up chances for their forwards.
Last night though, the midfielders weren’t as effective as usual, with Atletico stopping them. In midfield, Gabi and Tiago were at their battling best, and assisted by Garcia and Koke, ensured that Real had to pass the pall around and beyond the midfield, from the wide areas, rather than through the middle. It was a style which was somewhat unusual to Ancelotti’s Real Madrid whose chief chance creation this season was almost always from midfield. On the night, it was 2v2 in the middle of the park, with Gabi and Tiago stepping up with a labourous performance, preventing Modric from skipping past them as he has done so often the past year. Khedira was put there to ensure defensive solidity, and he did a good job of cutting off the Atletico attacks, but couldn’t really contribute much going forward. This was where Xabi Alonso was severely missed by Carlo’s team. The Spaniard can sit deep and make very accurate long range passes. With the likes of Ronaldo and Bale to help aerially up front, Real could have continued to play through the middle, but full credit to Atleti who made it hard for them. The Colchoneros midfielders had to ensure that Real do not get the ball beyond them, as the twin threats of Bale and Ronaldo getting on the ball could be disastrous for any defence in the world. The aggression with which Atletico took on Real was astounding. The 4 midfielder, Gabi, Tiago, Garcia, and Koke attempted 30 tackles between them, not allowing Real to build attacks.
As a result, Real had to resort to playing through the wide areas. The full backs, Carvajal and Coentrao saw a lot of the ball. Carvajal made 110 touches of the ball, and Coentrao, in his 59 minutes on the pitch, had 52 touches. With the midfield generally staying a bit narrow, the onus was on the full backs to attack, as the space was there for them. With the space there, Angel Di Maria was also forced wide, and he was the player that made an impact for Real Madrid. The Argentine, who has had a terrific season, was a threat all through the game. His dribbling and running with the ball really hurt Atletico, as he managed to win 4 fouls. His running was also directly responsible for the crucial second goal that Bale scored, as he dribbled past defenders to shoot and create the chance.
As mentioned above, the space was there in the wide areas, as Atletico preferred to stay narrow and stop Real attacking down the middle. With most of the space in the wide areas, the onus to attack was on the full backs, but they didn’t manage to make enough of an attacking impression in the first half. Coentrao was quite focused on doing his defensive duties, with Di Maria and Ronaldo ahead of him. This all changed in the second half, with Ancelotti’s substitutions doing the trick for the Merengues. Marcelo and Izco came on for Khedira and Coentrao, and this immediately brought a lot more attacking impetus.
Izco, who came on for Khedira, played in the middle of the park, but took up a more advanced role than Khedira had. The objective for him was to get behind the Atletico midfield and try and pick passes in the gaps that do appear in the Atletico defence. These gaps were supposed to appear due to the shift of emphasis to the wide areas for attack. With Marcelo on the field, Real shifted to a sort of back 3, as the Brazilian full back pushed very high up the field.
This was an excellent read of the game by Ancelotti and his team. They recognised Coentrao’s inability to really create enough for Benzema and Ronaldo. Marcelo was the perfect man for the cause, after all he is Brazillian! The only reason Marcelo didn’t make it to the squad was quite possibly the concern of how the 5’7 Brazilian would defend against the powerful and imposing presence of Raul Garcia.
The move was a masterstroke; Real Madrid suddenly had that spark about them down the left flank. Marcelo started wreaking all sorts of havoc, even freeing Ronaldo to an extent.
As you can see from the image above, Marcelo received a lot of his passes pretty high up the pitch. The Brazilian full back even managed to go on and score a goal towards the end of the game, and his influence cannot be underestimated in turning the game around for Madrid. As Marcelo came on, and width was added to the game, Real started getting in more crosses, and Atletico, despite having defenders like Miranda and Godin, were threatened by the aerial abilities of the likes of Morata, Ronaldo, and Bale. Towards the end of the 90, we even saw Sergio Ramos acting as an auxillary centre forward, and eventually getting a crucial goal from a corner.
All the discussion in the lead up to the big final concerned the fitness or otherwise of Diego Costa. Atletico have relied heavily on him for the goals and the attacking threat this season, and the loss of their star man could prove to be quite costly for the Colchoneros. Eventually, after help from all the medical staff at Atletico and placentas, Costa started the game. However, he limped off soon after, as he wasn’t fit to play. To see your talisman limp off after 10 minutes of ginger running (For the third time in a row now incidentally) is highly discouraging. One can understand the temptation of playing your best player throughout the season in the biggest game of the season, but a football manager at the highest level should have the courage to acknowledge the fact his star man is unfit and think ahead and plan without him. The title decider against Barca had the same outcome, but luckily didn’t cost Atletico who pulled through. While the mental effect cannot be underestimated, we have to realize that it had tactical effects too.
With Costa off, Simeone had to use up one of his substitutes, and as the game went into extra time, the fatigue was there too see, as players like Juanfran barely managed to get off the field at the end of the 120 minutes. It proved to be crucial as well, as Angel Di Maria burst past a visibly tired Juanfran to set up Bale’s goal. Also, it left Atletico without any real attacking plan B. They looked very lost going forward, and didn’t really create too many clear cut goal scoring chances. They didn’t have a single ‘Big Chance’ as per the statistics on FourFourTwo’s stats zone, and this tells you how important it was for Simeone to drop the injured Costa, and legislate for his absence.
At the end of the day, 4-1 is a scoreline that is very harsh on the efforts of Atletico Madrid, and one that doesn’t really reflect what the game was like. Atletico kept it scrappy, played to their strengths, and Simeone may not have won the trophy, but has surely earned the love and respect of millions of fans. It is important for him to help Atletico consolidate their position near the top of La Liga next season, and put in another top performance in the Champions League, where they will represent Spain as Champions.
As for Real, it seems a relaxed Carlo Ancelotti has been ideal after the stormy Jose Mourinho. The Italian had a huge task at the start of the season, with expectations high after the trophyless season that was 2012-13. Carletto has managed to get the best out of players like Ronaldo, Bale, and Di Maria, and the emergence of Jese has got Real supporters across the globe very excited.
Special thanks to Nikhil Krishna, for some fantastic inputs during and after the match.