This is the fourth in a five part series examining the units which will be pitted against each other on May 24. The previous part in the series focused on the midfields, the next part will focus on the managers.
Oh boy, is anyone going to star in this game? Cristiano Ronaldo surely won't be at 100 percent, Gareth Bale has had some pesky bumps and bruises lately, Karim Benzema's status is still a mystery (though reports today have him as a semi-probable option).
Then there's Atleti. Diego Costa's hammie flared up again against Barca this weekend so he went to see a horse placenta specialist (yes, that's right) to try and turn a two week recovery time into a miraculous one week recovery process. His status is still doubtful and even if he does play he won't be near 100 percent, which is big considering that he's been fairly invisible in a couple of matches against RM this season. David Villa has had a fine season and all Real Madrid fans are aware of his class, but he's 32 and hasn't recorded a goal or assist in over two months. Atleti's midfield could chip in with goals but the pressure might fall squarely on Raúl García's shoulders.
Let's take the hopeful route and assume that Diego Costa won't be able to defy logic and will be out of the starting lineup. Since Atleti play a 4-4-2, and sometimes a 4-4-1-1, this would leave Villa and most likely García as the two options up top. Diego (not Costa) could be a surprise starter but I think he'll be the first option off the bench should Atleti be searching for a goal. I'll come back to Costa in a bit.
David Villa has enjoyed a good bounce-back season, netting 13 goals and contributing four assists in all competitions (though the vast majority of those goals came before February 3), while García has 13 goals and seven assists to his name. Diego, back to Atleti from Wolfsburg, has five goals and three assists to his record this season. Compared to Diego Costa's 35 goals and four assists, these numbers pale in comparison but that shouldn't be fooling anyone. Atleti averages 13 shots per game in the league, 14 per game in the Champions League. However, Costa makes up three of those leaving García and Villa to average only two apiece. Their biggest midfield scoring threats are all averaging around one, thus it's incredibly vital for Real Madrid to be rock solid on set pieces as Atleti might not be peppering Iker with shot after shot.
García will be the key man in the forward line. He'll most likely play a little bit deeper than Villa, forming a 4-4-1-1 and more or less a five man midfield and thus making it incredibly packed in order to stifle Real Madrid's attacks. He's incredible in the air with 8/13 of his goals coming via headers. However, his shot accuracy is pretty poor and so is his passing. Villa, a more technical player but less of a physical presence, won't be an aerial threat but is a better finisher even though he's yet to register a goal in the Champions League this season. Some of that has been bad luck as his shots keep finding the post and not the back of the net, but he's not the player he once used to be (though he still is a threat on the counter). Diego is the best passer, dribbler and creator of the three, but isn't a physical danger, so don't be surprised if he gets the starting nod over the slumping Villa.
Now, on to Diego Costa. All indications and modern medical prognosis point to him being out of the game, or at least very, very doubtful for the game. However, the team is doing everything in their power to get him out there and I wouldn't be shocked if he suited up to try and tough it out through the pain. He's scored an astounding 35 goals this season, with eight of them coming in eight Champions League games. His conversion rate is a fantastic 28.7 percent and his dribbling is excellent, but he does have his flaws. He turns the ball over a lot, he has issues with staying onside and he has issues staying upright. He also has a habit (good or bad depends on your viewpoint) of goading the worst out of the opposition through his antics so if he plays then Real Madrid's defenders will have to be on their best behavior in order to avoid a silly penalty. He, along with Atleti's other strikers, is an avid presser of the opposition, often positioning himself between the fullbacks and the centerbacks to cut off channels and force quick turnovers.
Real Madrid will line up with Cristiano Ronaldo on the left, Gareth Bale on the right and (subject to change) Karim Benzema as the striker. Benz picked up an injury this past weekend but reports have positively progressed this week in regards to his condition. Should he not be able to start, Carlo Ancelotti will have the choice of Alvaro Morata as the striker or possibly Isco as a false 9. Neither is an ideal replacement as Morata has been very hit or miss while Isco is not a natural striker, but the two have scored nine and 11 goals this season, respectively.
All eyes will be on Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo and how effective he'll be coming off of an injury. He stated that he'll be playing at 100 percent but that's doubtful, however; even a hampered CR can still be a dangerous threat for defenses and especially on set pieces. CR has 50 goals between the three competitions he's taken part in as well as 12 assists. Gareth Bale (21 goals, 16 assists) should be in good condition to start and will have a tough task going against Filipe Luis, one of the best LBs in the world, and will surely have to pick up the slack as the healthiest member of the BBC. His interaction with Dani Carvajal will be something to watch as RM will look to exploit the flanks. Benzema (24 goals, 14 assists) is a fairly significant doubt but is more likely to play than Pepe.
If Benz can't play, indications are pointing to young Isco as his replacement, filling the role of the false 9 but actually falling back deeper to serve as the link-up source between CR and Bale. Carlo has played him in this role before this season, twice against Espanyol and once against Atleti, but he wasn't able to register a shot in any of those games which is concerning. Isco won't necessarily play to score (though he's proven to be more than adept at that), he'll play to try and find the openings in Atleti's airtight defense and hopefully draw fouls and cardings as that has turned out to be one of his strengths and one of Atleti's weaknesses. Morata, on the other hand, fits the more traditional role of striker and is a little bit more physical and commanding, though often struggles to make a tangible impact for all of his fine efforts. He's a tireless worker, and given Atleti's incredibly high rate of activity, could be a good option to tire out their defense and midfield in order for RM to bring in fresh players late in the game to exploit their fatigue. Neither bring Benzema's understanding of the game or connection with CR and Bale, but both could provide some positives in their own way.
For me, the key for Real Madrid will be to score first. Other than the two possession monsters associated with Pep Guardiola's style, I can't think of a better club to hold a lead than Atletico Madrid. If they score first, expect a bunker of a midfield and defense standing in Real Madrid's way, just waiting for the blancos to commit forward before being pressed to death and being hit on the counter. What Real needs to do is take an aggressive, but obviously intelligent, approach from the get-go just as they did early in the 2-2 draw. Putting a team not known for its offense behind early forces them out of their comfort zone and will expend their energy even further. As Atleti has shown signs of tiring late in games over the last few weeks, the second half of the Barca draw aside, RM's goal should be to exhaust them by forcing them to try to chase down a deficit.
You absolutely, no way no how, can count Atleti out of the game for even one second, but realistically, how many do we expect them to score without Costa or even with a seriously hampered Costa if he manages to play? Two? One? A shutout?
They scored one goal in the first meeting between the two clubs thanks to a turnover in front of goal, none in the second, none in the third (and really didn't even threaten in these two games) and realistically should've only been one in the fourth since the second goal allowed by Real Madrid should've been saved from that distance. If Gabi takes that shot 100 times against Iker I doubt he'd score more than once.
They're averaging nearly three less shots on target per game in the league than RM and that's with Costa, in the CL that number isn't much better. Since the start of March (a decent sample size), they've played 18 games and have scored more than one goal in only eight of those games, Costa has scored eight of the 24 goals scored by the team in that span. For the season they're averaging 2.03 goals while having been shut out 13 percent of the time.
Now compare that with Real Madrid since the start of March, where they've played 19 games and have scored more than one goal in 13 of those games. For the season they're averaging 2.74 goals per game and have been shut out five percent of the time. Of course, RM's defense hasn't been as good but you have to ask yourself which is the bigger potential loss, Pepe when Atleti's offense is not a high-powered threat or Costa's when Atleti's offense is not a high powered threat.
Benz will be a big miss, no doubt about that since he's often been the glue in the front three, but between the projected remaining starters Real Madrid have scored 67 goals in all competitions this season. Atleti minus Costa? In all competitions: 31. Atleti were probably never going to win this game through their offense but rather through that rock solid midfield and defense (not to mention their Belgian starlet in goal), but if Costa is unavailable that makes their task much more unenviable as his goals were 32 percent of their total goal output.
Edge: Real Madrid. A Cristiano Ronaldo at 80 percent is still better than the majority of the world, plus Bale, ADM and Isco will be healthy and ready to chip in. If Costa were starting it would be closer but I'd still give the edge to Real Madrid.