Friday, 23 May 2014

Europe's Premier Derby

Firstly, can I say how glad I am that Chelsea lost in the semi final of the European Cup.  Not because I’m not a huge fan of Chelsea’s “park the bus” tactics, their supremely arrogant manager or JT (because I’m not anyway).  No, you can thank Clive Tyldsley’s counting of chickens act during Real Madrid’s win in Munich, where he was already looking forward to Mourinio facing up against his Real successor and Chelsea predecessor Ancelotti a full 24 hours before Chelsea’s second leg against Atletico.  We do hope that ITV’s coverage of the European Cup Final on Saturday is prefaced with some humble pie scoffing, because Tyldsley was doing plenty of licking of lips that night…
Casillas with goalscorers Zidane & Raul at Hampden in 2002

Instead of Chelsea we have Atletico Madrid taking on their Madrid rivals Real on Saturday.  I did a blogpost in the run up to the Scottish Cup final between Hib’s and Hearts where I started by saying that most of the worlds derby’s have one high profile meeting, well I can’t think of anything that could trump a derby in the European Cup Final, even if there has only been 5 all Madrid Spanish Cup final’s.  Not only that, this will be the first time that the European Cup final has been contested by two teams from the same city.

In a normal world, Atletico Madrid would be favourites, given that they have just won their 10th La Liga Championship – done the hard way with a 1-1 draw at the Camp Nou.  They did finish 3 points ahead of Real in the table, winning at home and drawing at the Bernabeu.  The only blot would be their 5-0 aggregate defeat to Real in the semi-finals of the Spanish Cup, but then that was revenge for Atletico’s win against Real in last season’s final.

For Atleti, much will rest on whether Diego Costa and Turan make it to the final.  Both limped out of Atletico’s league decider at Barcelona early on and have been in a race for fitness since.  Those two playes though are not the only key players in Athletico’s squad.  Koke was a key player in the quarter final win over Barcelona, while Courtois has been excellent for them in goal.  Surprisingly, they still have in reserve the experienced figure of David Villa – a key player for Barca during the high water mark of the Guardiola years. 

Falcao with the UEFA Cup after their 3-0 win over Bilbao in Bucharest
With all the success for Atletico, you wonder how long Diego Simeone will be staying in Madrid before bigger teams come a calling.  Simeone does have an affinity with the club, having been a key player when they completed the Spanish League & cup double in 1995/96 – before being sold to Inter Milan.  Interestingly for someone who played under Marcello Bielsa in the 2002 World Cup, Simeone’s outlook (if his quote about “socialist football” is anything to go by) is influenced by another former Argentina coach – Cesar Menotti - and his talk of "Left wing football".

Atletico’s biggest incentive to win on Saturday will be the thought that their first European Cup win would deny Real the fabled “La Decima” – the Tenth triumph.  Real’s holy grail since the final whistle blew on a rainy night on the south side of Glasgow 12 years ago (above).  Since then the Galactico’s project blew up, Real have regrouped and subsequently launched Galactico’s 2.  They smashed their own transfer record with the capture of Kaka, then days later obliterated it with the capture of long time target Christiano Ronaldo.  Flavour of the month attacking players have followed, but the next big capture was… er… long time target Gareth Bale.

Bale, French forward Benzema and Ronaldo make up Real’s formidable front line, with Di Maria and another ex EPL player Luca Modric providing the creative promptings from midfield.  Missing from the match, through suspension, will be another ex EPL player – the former Liverpool midfielder Xavi Alonso.  Isco will be favourite to deputise.  Where Real look weakest will be at the back with the eternally suspect Pepe partnering walking red card Sergio Ramos.

A lot of the focus though will be on Real Madrid’s attempt to win their tenth European Cup.  Their last victory came in 2002 with a 2-1 win over Leverkusen at Hampden – a match made famous for Zidane’s glorious volley.  Up to then Madrid had won three times in five seasons (a 1-0 win over Juventus in 1998 was followed 2 years later with a 3-0 win over Valencia).  Before then you had to go back to 1966 for their last victory, a 2-1 win over Partizan Belgrade.  Their sixth win (they won 5 in a row from 1956-1960) saw them given the old European Cup to keep.  The debut for the big cup with the big ears came the first time this match came to Lisbon.

Atletico have been here before though.  40 years ago they reached the final in Brussels when a last minute goal by Swartzenbeck cancelled out Aragones opener.  In the old days, the match went to a replay, so 48 hours later Bayern Munich swept aside Atletico Madrid 4-0 (left) to take their maiden European Cup.  It’s also forgotten that Atletico are aiming to emulate Juventus, Barcelona, Ajax, Bayern Munich & Chelsea in winning all of the European trophies. Atletico won the second European Cup Winners Cup but had to wait until 2009 before they could win the UEFA Cup, a trophy they regained in 2012.  Remember as well that Real, for all of their nine triumphs, have lost at this stage.  They lost to Benfica in 1962, and to Inter two years later and most recently lost to Liverpool in 1981.

This will be the first European Cup final to be held at the Estadio da Luz – even though the pre-renovation stadium hosted the Cup Winners Cup final in 1992.  When Celtic won in 1967, the final was hosted at Estadio Nacional .  I think that unless Atletico have seriously ran out of steam, I think they can do it and win.  I take them to win 2-1 after extra time.

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