60 years on from the very first European Cup final, won in dramatic fashion by an Alfredo Di Stéfano inspired Real Madrid, eyes in the Spanish capital will again be transfixed as Los Blancos take on city rivals Atletico Madrid in the latest edition of European football’s annual showpiece.
Perhaps more so than in previous years, there are numerous fascinating subplots to this game. It’s a local derby for one and a chance for Atletico Madrid to enact revenge on their city rivals following their defeat in the 2014 final. For both clubs it’s a last chance to salvage some silverware from a season where domestically they’ve again had to play second fiddle to Barcelona. Meanwhile on the touchline, two men will be aiming to take their legendary status at their respective clubs to immortal heights by lifting the famous trophy high into the Milan sky on Saturday night.
For Diego Simeone it is a chance to do what no Atletico Madrid coach has ever done and win the biggest prize of all. Not only that it would eradicate the ghosts of Brussels and Lisbon, where Atleti came within a whisker of becoming European champions in their two previous finals. The first in 1974 saw Atleti break the deadlock with six minutes remaining of extra-time against Bayern Munich through Luis Aragones only to concede to virtually the last kick of the game. Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck’s long range pile-driver took the game to the only final replay in the competition’s history which the Germans won convincingly 4-0.
Simeone would have been just four years old at the time but four decades on he was leading Atleti out into their second European cup final which would follow a hauntingly similar course. Los Colchoneros took the lead through Diego Godin’s looping first half header and held the advantage until deep into second half stoppage when Sergio Ramos did what Schwarzenbeck had done 40 years earlier and scored a goal that broke Atleti hearts. Real Madrid overpowered their demoralised local rivals in extra-time to win the game 4-1 and once again leave Atleti fans dreaming of what might have been.
For all that Simeone has achieved during his hugely successful four and a half years in charge at the Vicente Calderon, he won’t leave a completely satisfied man until he has made Atleti the champions of Europe for the first time. Having won the double as an Atleti player under Radomir Antić in 1996 he has led the club to five different trophies as head coach already but all were ones that Atleti had won before. However were Simeone to leave Milan a winner on Saturday, his legend will never die in the southern suburbs of Madrid. He would have won all three major domestic trophies and all three European trophies in less than five years at the helm, a feat that simply would never be forgotten.
In the opposing dug-out though there is another man trying to make some history of his own. Like Simeone, Zinedine Zidane is already held in incredibly high regard at his club but when that club is Real Madrid, the most successful team in European football history, it can take more than a great playing career to ensure you are truly cherished forever.
His vintage display and wonder-goal in Real’s 2002 Champions League final win against Bayer Leverkusen, was the defining moment of his club playing career and one that shaped his status as the most fondly remembered of the Galacticos although Super Cups aside it was one of just two trophies he won as a Real Madrid player. In the grand scheme of things the likes of Di Stéfano and Puskas still rank well above Zizou in terms of being an all-time Real Madrid legend but the Frenchman can take a huge leap in that direction this weekend.
Only one Real Madrid player has previously won the European Cup and gone on to do likewise as a manager. Zidane will be hoping to emulate Miguel Muñoz, who won the trophy three times as a player and twice as coach in the 1950s and 60s. For a man who started the season managing Real Madrid’s reserve side to end it with his hands on the trophy that Madridistas crave the most would be a remarkable story and one that even at the very beginning of his coaching career, would ensure he leaves a lasting legacy.
Zidane, who was on the touchline in Lisbon two years ago assisting Carlo Ancelotti, will know the stakes are higher for him than his opposite number though. Despite losing only two of his 26 matches in charge and leading Los Blancos to a Champions League final, there are still those who question whether this will be his last game at the helm. Only a couple of weeks ago he was quoted by Spanish newspaper Marca as stating ‘I don’t know if I’ll be here’ when asked about plans for next season and although it seems likely he will stay on, defeat could well arise fresh doubts about both his credentials for the job and long-term future.
One of his two defeats was against Atleti, when Simeone’s men won 1-0 at the Bernabeu in February and Real Madrid have rarely enjoyed life against their city rivals since the Argentine rocked up across town in December 2011 to completely transform what had become a very one-sided rivalry. Real’s victory in Lisbon was more an aberration than the trend in recent times although both sides are now so familiar with playing each other, that the contests have invariably been close.
El derbi madrileño has been played an almost ridiculous 19 times during the relatively short Simeone era at the Vicente Calderon. Since the 2014 final, the sides have met ten times with Atleti chalking up five wins to Real Madrid’s one and Simeone seems to have the measure on how to nullify his team’s more illustrious neighbours.
Los Blancos won the biggest meeting of all though and while Atleti’s disappointment at losing the Champions League final two years ago was certainly softened by having won La Liga the weekend before, there will be absolutely no comfort in defeat for either side on Saturday.
Atleti are past the point where their appearance in European finals should be treated as a surprise and it is testament to the immense job their coach has done that despite beating Barcelona and Bayern to get here, defeat to their city rivals would leave them reflecting on a season without silverware for the first time in the Simeone era.
Real Madrid’s troubles on and off the pitch this term have been well documented and while Zidane and his players deserve credit for at least closing the gap on Barcelona and taking the title race to the last day, finishing in 2nd place to the Catalans will never be treated as anything other than failure by followers of Los Blancos. That combined with their Copa del Rey disqualification meant the Champions League was always likely to be their only shot at salvation this season and so it has proved.
There will be absolutely no grey areas at the San Siro on Saturday. For both clubs their seasons will ultimately be defined by the outcome of this game and although fine margins may settle it, the difference between victory and defeat is colossal.
For Real, victory would mean a historic 11th European crown while defeat would mark a humiliating end to a pretty desperate season. Atleti would love nothing more than to dish out that humiliation on their more decorated neighbours and in doing so banish a few demons of their own with a triumph that would be remembered forever at the Vicente Calderon. However they too will know that defeat will again leave them reflecting on what might have been in what is surely their best ever chance of clinching Europe’s biggest prize.
Either Zinedine Zidane or Diego Simeone will head back to joyous celebrations in Madrid with the famous old trophy on their plane. Whoever it is will return to their club as an immortal figure having written a small piece of history that will surely stand the test of time.
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