On paper Real Madrid have one of the best, or at least one of the most expensive assemblages of players the world has even seen. Atletico Madrid on the other hand, boasts a squad that’s largely been parted out with castoffs from other clubs, bargain-bin buys, and a core of academy players. And yet unlike two years ago, when the clubs met in the 2014 final in Lisbon, Atletico go into Saturday’s match suddenly looking like favorites.
It shouldn’t make sense that a team whose only true superstar – Fernando Torres – is several years past his prime should be favorites over a team that contains the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema. But then how could a team that advanced to this year’s final by eliminating Barcelona and Bayern Munich from the competition be anything but favorites?
Two years ago, there was a sense that Atleti had crashed the party somehow; that an excellent season in which they’d beat both Real and Barça to the punch in La Liga and stormed to a Champions League final was a bit of a fluke.
But after a middling season last year it seems this Atletico team is back, or more accurately, they are here to stay. For as long as Diego Simeone remains in charge anyway. Atletico Madrid has earned its place at the big kids table.
Certain members of the cast may have changed – Diego Costa and David Villa have been replaced by Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres, Thibaut Courtois by Jan Oblak – but Atletico Madrid as a team are perhaps more about a certain style of playing than they are about individual players. As of yet, no player has proved indispensible to this team, which carries on season after season, in spite of seemingly losing its top players every summer.
“Our style is to renew ourselves starting from the characteristics of the players and empowering the football player, which is the most important thing in this game,” said Simeone speaking the club’s website.
“We base our work in 90 minutes of play, knowing that all the minutes have to be of high-quality. Every minute has to mean life for whoever is playing.”
This uncanny knack for pulling a rabbit out of a hat every season, for losing their best players and carrying on as if nothing has happened, has elevated Simeone’s team to the highest bracket of Europe’s top teams. Whether Atletico’s membership in his elite tier is fleeting or more permanent may largely depend on Saturday’s result. Following up 2014’s La Liga crown with a Champions League triumph would certainly cement Atletico’s status among Europe’s elite, and it’s no less than they deserve.
But in Saturday’s Milan final, unlike two years ago in Lisbon, Atletico must now cope with the added pressure of being favorites to win.