It is not very often that I am an expert prognosticator, but in the case of the 2013-14 UEFA Champions League I have been quite the foreteller. I have been proclaiming from the mountain tops since the group stage ended that if the draws allowed the result of this tournament would be an All-Madrid Final. They are two clubs in supreme form that have slayed the last three winners of the tournament on their road to Lisbon. The Spanish capital's streets will either run red or white after this Saturday. Let's delve into how the two Spanish titans stack up.
Atletico Madrid has had a dream season under Diego Simeone. Real's neighbors have had a great few seasons recently with 2 Europa League victories and a Copa Del Rey under their belt. This year they have a chance to usurp all those accomplishments with a tremendous double. Los Rojiblancos already have one half of the deed done after a draw with Barcelona on La Liga's final day secured them their first league crown since the 1995-1996 term. In that 1995-1996 season, Atleti won the double with the Copa Del Rey. This year's double conquest would be that much sweeter with the second half of the double being potentially their first UEFA Champions League title. That sweetness however is going to be harder to taste if their talismanic striker, Diego Costa, is not fit for the contest. The Brazilian turned Spanish international strained his hamstring in the finale at the Camp Nou leaving his availability for the Final in the hands of fate. It's not for lack of trying if Costa misses the game as he's been undergoing extensive physical therapy on his hamstring including a less than conventional horse placenta treatment in Belgrade, Serbia.
If Costa is sidelined the impetus of attacking falls on David Villa and Raul Garcia. The former Barca man Villa has yet to score for Atletico in the UCL this season but was the second leading scorer behind Costa in league play. Garcia on the other hand has put the ball in the back of the net four times in the competition coming up from his spot in the midfield. Koke, whose early winner sealed Barcelona's ouster, will also be asked to provide some firepower for the Spanish champions. The extra goal scoring will probably not come from Arda Turan, AM's second leading scorer in the Champions League, who like Costa is doubtful for Saturday with a knee injury.
Truth be told though, Atletico Madrid did not get this far with offense. They've worked wonders on their own half of the pitch led by Thibaut Courtois at goalkeeper. The 22 year old Belgian international, on loan from Chelsea, has been otherworldly for Atletico in 2013-14. He has been a rock at the back for a defense that was the stingiest in La Liga as well as the Champions League. It hasn't been all Courtois as the back four of Juanfran, Miranda, Diego Godin, and Filipe Luis have been tremendous in keeping the opposition, and some mighty opposition at that, at bay. Heck, they've even made an impact on the offensive end with only Juanfran yet to register a goal to his name in Champions League action. Atletico have proven all season that they belong in the conversation of the elite teams in European football but they face their biggest test yet at 2:45 EST Saturday.
That test of course is Real Madrid. A team that has stampeded their opponents in the Champions League like wild elephants. The elephant leading the charge is naturally Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese superstar has done it all for Los Blancos in the UCL this campaign scoring a record breaking 16 goals in the 2013-2014 edition. He and Madrid are looking for what they refer to as La Decima, an unprecedented 10th European championship. It seems to be the perfect setup for Ronaldo and his mates as they attempt to hit the double digit mark in CR7's home country of Portugal. He has already won the Champions League with Manchester United but to put his name into the pantheon of Madrid Galacticos like Zidane, Di Stefano, and Raul, he needs to win this Saturday.
Although sometimes it seems that way, Real Madrid isn't just a one man team. One hundred million euro man Gareth Bale battled injuries for most of the early part of this season but since returning to full fitness has been a dynamo on the opposite wing of Ronaldo. He has scored five times in the Champions League and his scintillating run and goal to clinch the Copa Del Rey in yet another El Clasico against Barcelona was the stuff of legend. Five goals is also the haul of Karim Benzema in this year's UCL. The underappreciated Frenchman is also tied for the second most assists in the 13-14 Champions League with fellow madrileño Angel Di Maria. Benzema is going to be a game time decision come Saturday but with options like Isco and Alvaro Morata on the bench there won't be much of a dropoff. One person who won't be a game-time decision: Xabi Alonso, who will miss the game due to suspension. Alonso was a crucial part of Liverpool's 2005 Champions League victory and has been a stabilizing force in the Real midfield.
Of all the lauding done of Real's offensive weapons, their defense is just as good. It may be filled with risk takers and erratic personalities but it had the third most ungenerous defense in La Liga and was second to only their opponents in the Final in the UCL. Sergio Ramos leads the back line of Los Merengues in central midfield. The highest active scoring defender in La Liga showed off that skill with a brace against Bayern Munich, hopefully making the Real faithful forget about his moonshot penalty miss against the German juggernauts in the 2012 semis. Pepe may have a brace of his own for Saturday, one to help steady his injured calf. The Portuguese defender, most known for his bone crunching tackles and penchant for red cards, will be a huge loss for Real if he is unable to go. Fullbacks Dani Carvajal and Marcelo will have to pick up the slack in front of Iker Casillas. Casillas, the last holdover from Real's last UCL triumph in 2001-2002, has dealt with harsh criticism of his play in recent years but at 33 still shows little signs of fading as a top flight keeper.
The Madrid derby will play itself one more time on Saturday and I expect a great contest for the world to witness. Both teams have taken proverbial scalps from one another over the rigors of the 2013-2014 European football season but this last one is the most special of all. I have been rooting for Atletico Madrid since the group stages of the competition. I hope for the sake of their great fans this isn't the last they'll see of Diego Costa in a red and white shirt, as he is rumored to be heading to England come the summer. That is what makes my prediction for the final that much more difficult for me to make. I am picking Real Madrid to take the trophy back to the Santiago Bernabeu with a 3-1 victory over Atletico with Cristiano Ronaldo netting a minimum of two of the three goals in his homeland.
Enjoy the game and be sure to check back here at Headers & Howlers on Bleeding Your Colors for my predictions, previews, and commentary for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil! Cheers!
Image Credits: Both crests (Wikipedia.org)