Saturday's Champions League final pits Zinedine Zidane, a rookie manager, against Diego Simeone, who has created the best-organised...
Saturday's Champions League final pits Zinedine Zidane, a rookie manager, against Diego Simeone, who has created the best-organised team in Europe.
Real Madrid have the superstars, but Atletico Madrid are a superior unit, which should make this a fascinating tactical battle. Here are five key areas where the final will be decided:
1. Real Switching Play
Atletico are compact not just vertically (from defence to attack) but also horizontally (from left to right). They encourage opposition teams to play passes towards the wings, before shutting them down quickly and efficiently, boxing in opponents towards the touchline. To prevent gaps forming between midfielders to guard against penetrative passes, Atletico's wide midfielder on the opposite flank moves towards the ball.
Inevitably, the only way around this compact block is to switch play towards the opposite flank, although this is easier said than done. Atletico crowd opposition wide players so effectively when they have possession that a square pass is often extremely risky.
Nevertheless, in Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, Real have two of the most composed, intelligent central midfielders in the business, and two footballers who appreciate the importance and value of a reliable lateral pass. Quick switches towards full-backs Marcelo and Dani Carvajal, both keen to get forward, could be their best route of attack, especially if they overlap to allow Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo inside to shoot.
Besides, frequently switching the play forces Atletico to move laterally across the pitch constantly, which is tiring and difficult to perform without leaving gaps. The further Atletico's midfield has to run from side to side, the more they'll lose compactness and Real will be able to penetrate.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo V Juanfran
When Real Madrid produced a storming extra-time period to triumph 4-1 over Atletico two years ago, Juanfran was the fall guy. The Spanish right-back had picked up an injury and spent the entire half-hour hobbling, with Simeone unable to replace him having already made all three substitutions.
Inevitably, Real's three extra-time goals originated from the right flank. It was an unfair way for Juanfran to end a magnificent individual campaign, especially as he'd proved extremely effective at nullifying Ronaldo.
Ronaldo has scored just once from open play in his 10 appearances against Atletico since that Champions League final, and Juanfran can feel confident he's worked out a way to cause Ronaldo problems.
Juanfran tends to stick extremely tight during the opening period, often with a midfielder dropping back into Atletico's defence to guard the right-back zone. Juanfran positions himself well and shows Ronaldo down the line effectively, and while he has a habit of diving into tackles in unnecessary positions against the Portuguese attacker, he largely performs well in the derby.
Juanfran and the Atletico defence effectively clamped down on Cristiano Ronaldo in Atletico's 1-0 win at the Bernabeu on Feb. 27.
His greater problem comes when the ball is on the opposite flank. Ronaldo is excellent at moving inside to become a second centre-forward, and aerially he has the beating of Juanfran. A couple of early, diagonal balls to use Ronaldo's aerial power might be a useful strategy for Real.
3. Casemiro Stopping Atletico's Counters
Arguably the least talented player in Real's starting XI could be their key man in their biggest game of the season. Real's tactical performance throughout 2015-16 has largely depended upon whether the functional, no-nonsense Brazilian plays the holding role.
They were ripped apart by Barcelona when attempting to play without him in November, but have largely competed well in big games since, after Zidane made him a key part of the side.
Casemiro will be pressed in the opening stages as Atletico attempt to stamp their authority upon the game, and he must demonstrate his confidence and calmness in possession to help put Real on the front foot.
From there, his role will be extremely important. Although he must help Real's possession play, Modric and Kroos will be the players charged with playing dangerous passes into attack. Casemiro must ensure he's always alert to the threat of a counter-attack, positioning himself to deny easy balls into Antoine Griezmann, while keeping an eye upon Koke and Saul making runs from wide positions into the centre.
There will be a couple of moments, as Atletico break, when Casemiro will be forced to make major decisions: who to track, when to commit to challenges, whether a tactical foul and a yellow card is better than the risk of being dribbled past. Real lack shape without the ball, and therefore their only defensive midfielder will be pivotal.
4. Fernando Torres vs. Sergio Ramos
Griezmann is unquestionably Atletico Madrid's greatest attacking threat, but we roughly know what to expect from the Frenchman: powerful runs from deep, clever movement into the channels, a key player in Atletico's lightning-fast transitions. Fernando Torres, however, is more of a mystery.
In recent months, Torres has returned to something approaching the Torres of old: feisty, lively, powerful and a genuine goal threat. He's changed his game, however; no longer able to rely upon searing acceleration, but instead using his body effectively, battling against opponents, holding up the ball and waiting for midfield support. He's a determined, selfless and reliable centre-forward, whether playing in a duo alongside Griezmann, or upfront alone in more of a 4-5-1. He will spearhead Atletico's charge, but it's a tough role to play in such a big game.
Former Spain teammates Fernando Torres and Sergio Ramos will try to outfox each other in Saturday's final.
His contest against old international teammate Ramos will be particularly intriguing. A couple of years ago it seemed Ramos had matured and become one of the most reliable centre-backs around, but recently errors have crept back into his game. He dives in too much, conceding fouls or allowing space in behind for opposition runners to exploit.
Torres will know how to tempt Ramos out of position, how to lure him into challenges he doesn't need to make. The Atletico striker would love a goal to confirm his re-emergence as a top-class footballer, but he'll likely play as a permanent decoy, helping other Atletico players into goalscoring positions.
In the 2014 final, both goals in regular time came from set-pieces -- Diego Godin nodded Atletico into the lead to punish Iker Casillas' error, while Ramos powered home a last-gasp equaliser to take the contest into extra-time.
This is likely to be another tight, tense contest with few clear-cut chances in open play -- and therefore set-pieces should be crucial once again. Both teams have various aerial threats, with Real's centre-back pairing and front trio all adept in the air, while Atletico are also a tall, physical side.
Godin is a particular threat, and seemingly the main target whenever Atletico have a corner. Simeone will be encouraged by the fact Real's goalkeeper Keylor Navas, while an excellent shot-stopper, isn't particularly good at commanding his box.
Atletico would be happy for the game to be 0-0 in open play, and decided solely according to set-pieces. With their title charge ending on the penultimate weekend, making their final day match against Celta Vigo irrelevant, Simeone will have spent the past three weeks preparing his players for this game -- a couple of set-piece routines will surely have featured heavily.