The 2014 summer transfer window was quite eventful for Real Madrid. The Spanish giants acquired the services of Colombian playmaker James Rodriguez for £61.7m and followed it up with the signing of talented German midfielder Tony Kroos for the impressive sum of £19.3m. Known for expensive buys, this was normal service for Real.
The display of their financial might came when they fielded the most expensive line-up in history for their Super Cup victory over Sevilla, with the team costing around £364 million in transfer fees.
The story was somewhat different for city rivals Atletico Madrid. The ‘other’ Madrid club were crowned La Liga champions after 18 years, but were defeated 4-1in the final of the 2014 Uefa Champions League in Lisbon by a star-studded Real side. However, their real hardship started after the end of the season when Diego Simeone’s side sold several top players over the summer, including Diego Costa and Filipe Luis to Chelsea, and Thibaut Courtois’ loan term came to an end.
Two years have passed but the situation has not changed much.
When the teams meet in the final of the Uefa Champions League on May 28, it will again be a fight between one of the richest teams in the world and one of the grittiest.
Currently, the wage bill of Real Madrid is almost double that of Atletico Madrid’s and their transfer record is close to 2.5 times of what Atletico paid for their costliest player.
But, in spite of such stark differences, it will be foolish to consider Atletico Madrid as the weaker team.
It took a while for Atletico to recover from the defeat in the 2014 final, but they’ve done so in impressive fashion. With Costa gone, Antoine Griezmann took over his position and become their primary goal scorer, evolving from a promising goal-scoring winger at Real Sociedad. The midfield is now probably their deepest position, with the likes of Koke and their semi-final hero Saul Niguez forming a commendable partnership at its heart. But, the true pride of the team has been its defence which conceded only 18 goals during the La Liga season – the least by any team in all the major European leagues. Pundits are calling it one of the best defences of recent times.
Two years ago, Real Madrid were the favourites in the Champions League final against Atletico. And while Simeone’s team fought hard, things fell apart in extra-time to give Real a resounding win and La Decima - their 10th Champions League title. That win was a huge moment for Real -- but it also proved to be a turning point in this rivalry. The following season, things started to even out significantly. Atletico won both league matches against Real in 2015, just edging them in a brutal battle at the Bernabeu, and then absolutely destroying them at the Calderon to the tune of a 4-0 rout that could have been much more. Real Madrid gained the upper hand in the Copa Del Rey and Champions League, but it was clear that the difference between the teams was decreasing rapidly.
Saturday’s showdown is being held in this climate.
Spanish midfielder Koke said in a press conference, “You never know how many finals you’ll get; you have to play each as if it was your last. It is inevitable that Lisbon is on their minds, but there appears to be a collective effort to look beyond that now.”
The passion was quite evident in the Atletico side as they finished just three points behind La Liga winners Barcelona and their gritty brand of football have found a lot of fans around the world. That’s because even though it’s not pretty, like, say Barcelona, it is not short on aggression.
That is one of the reasons why they will be no pushovers in the Champions League final and a win on the biggest stage of European football will surely complete the revolution started by Diego Simeone.
When Leicester City lifted the Premier League title earlier this month, the final chapter in one of football’s most remarkable stories was completed. Many experts went on to call this season as the year of the underdog and it seems that Atletico Madrid could make it seem even more so.