Atletico Madrid sealed the league title with a draw against Barcelona on Saturday, but their triumph came at a cost as both Diego Costa and Arda Turan had to go off with injuries. Scans showed a grade one tear to Costa’s hamstring, which leaves him with only an outside chance of playing, while Arda has a pelvic injury. Although the latter has trained this week, both are major doubts. Real Madrid’s concerns over the fitness of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema have eased but their biggest problem is the suspension of Xabi Alonso, who picked up a needless booking in the second leg of the semi-final victory over Bayern Munich. Although Asier Illaramendi or Sami Khedira, now on his way back to full fitness after his cruciate injury, could step in, neither would offer quite the same sense of command in front of the back four.
CONTROLLING THE MIDFIELD
Back in September, when Atletico won 1-0 at the Bernabeu, Real matched them shape for shape with a four-man midfield of, from right to left, Angel Di Maria, Khedira, Illaramendi and Isco, with Cristiano Ronaldo taking up a central position behind Benzema.
Atletico, narrower and more disciplined, dominated the centre of the pitch that night, severely disrupting Real to the point that they had to switch to 4-2-3-1, restoring Ronaldo to the right, using Isco centrally with Gareth Bale coming in on the right, replacing Illaramendi. That did give Carlo Ancelotti's side greater control, but not enough to break Atletico down.
By March, when they met again at the Vicente Calderon, Real had settled into the 4-3-3 that has proved so effective for them in Europe of late, with Xabi Alonso flanked by Luka Modric and Angel Di Maria. That’s a tighter formation and all three are intelligent, technically-gifted ball players, an ideal platform in many ways for a front three as mobile and rapid as Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo. Atletico, though, with both wide players tucking in and Raul Garcia dropping back, were able to overman them, and had a physical edge. Real eventually recovered, and Atletico perhaps paid the price for pressing too hard to early, but the evidence was that even with three central midfielders, Atletico can overpower them in midfield.
Real can perhaps draw heart from their 5-0 aggregate win in the Copa del Rey, but the big difference there was the absence of Mario Suarez from the back of Atleti’s midfield in the first leg; without him offering a defensive shield, the two centre-backs were left badly exposed.
ATLETICO’S WIDE MEN
Koke and Arda aren’t really wide men at all, although they play on the sides of the midfield four. Rather they’re auxiliary central midfielders, always prepared to tuck in and add to the defensive block, while having the discipline and energy to close down the opposing full-backs. Koke, in particular, has a vital role in that regard, given how Fabio Coentrao and Marcelo – both the Real options at left-back – like to get forward. That’s why the possible loss of Arda is such a blow. Raul Garcia replaced him after he was injured on Saturday, but if he's needed centrally, Jose Sosa could be used wide.
Diego Simeone’s use of Raul Garcia in the league game at the Calderon was key. He essentially played as a deep-lying second striker, behind Diego Costa, and did a fine job both of marking Xabi Alonso and of getting forward to support his centre-forward, offering a significant aerial threat. Although Atletico’s barrage of Chelsea in the first leg of the semi-final was baffling and ineffective, Sergio Ramos and Pepe are not as comfortable dealing with crosses as John Terry and Gary Cahill and so Raul Garcia’s late runs should pose significant threat. That said, without Xabi Alonso, it may be that Simeone decides there is no need for a disrupter high up the pitch: in training this week, Atleti have played a 4-1-4-1 with Garcia and Arda (fitness notwithstanding) wide.
BALE AND RONALDO
The pace and physicality of Bale and Ronaldo means they are at their best playing on the break, but Atletico are unlikely to allow Real to do that. Rather they will probably look to scrap and spoil, preventing Real developing any kind of rhythm. That said, full backs Juanfran and to a lesser extent Filipe Luis, do get forward, so there may be opportunities to hit the space behind them. Given how obvious the threat of Ronaldo and Bale is, though, Simeone is likely to urge his full-backs to be cautious at least while the scores remain level. Expect a cagey first half as a result.
Although Real Madrid have failed twice to beat Atletico this season, and though they will be without Xabi Alonso, the injury problems surrounding Atletico suggest to me that this will be a miracle too far for Diego Simeone's side. Real Madrid feel too short as 1.45 favourites, but the reality is that they are set to collect their 10th European Cup on Saturday night. To help eek out some value, go with a draw at half time and Real Madrid to win within 90 minutes at 5.00.
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