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MM Roundtable: Real - Atletico Preview

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The MM crew chips in on the upcoming UCL final

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During an e-mail exchange, the crew bounced around some questions related to the Champions League Final on May 28th.

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Holy smokes. We are in the Champions League final, and barely missed out on the La Liga title. How shocking is this entire scenario given how dead this team was 5 months ago?

Mike: It's really a testament to Zidane, the assistants, and the players that they never rolled over and kept fighting. The team's shown some serious mental fortitude this year. For all its foibles, this season has been a ton of fun.

Om: 5 months ago, I couldn't even waste a prayer on this team. I was unconvinced by Zidane's iffy record at Castilla and by the total tactical mess our squad was in. I would've been pleased with a top three finish and a run to the Champions League semifinals. But around mid-March, my attitude changed. Zidane's motivational powers and the return of form for Cristiano Ronaldo gave me new hope for this team, prompting me to write this article. From then on I've gotten reinvested in this season and it's been one heck of a ride. No matter what happens on the 28th of July (29th for me), I'll just be glad that I was there to see the whole thing.

Gabe: On one hand I really am shocked--this season looked so belly up in December and January that I confused it for my first pet goldfish (ok yeah that was weak af). On the other hand, and I'm trying to find a way of saying this where I don't sound like an apologist know it all, if you look at this roster (arguably the deepest in years) and you consider that Madrid's biggest rivals (Barcelona) were coming off the back of a long season with even more travel... I mean is it really so far fetched to see this coming? Madrid's truly strong summer transfer window was masked by one horrendous decision (hi Rafa). Take that away and you have a deep squad with (at least top level) talent at every position.

Kiyan: What a ride. I wrote about this recently, but basically April 2nd - present day has been ubber-impressive, and few have actually zoomed-out to appreciate just how great this run to end the season has been. Momentum can be swung in an instant. In this case, it was Ronaldo's winning goal at the Camp Nou which flipped the switch for both teams in antithetical directions. I really had this nauseating feeling back in February that this team's problems were borderline irreversible for the season, and that Zidane would be let go with Perez hitting the reset button for the umpteenth time. That didn't happen. Phew.

Timm: While things look bleak, the team needed direction and Zidane has/is providing that direction. Who could have guessed that Barca would stumble just enough to even allow us back in the race? Athleti slipping on a banana peel sure did help. Had they not slipped up, we would be talking about a third place finish and people wanting to burn the club to the ground and start over. While it's not shocking, it's a bit hard to believe where we were just 5 months ago when we were fighting for a spot in the top 4.

Lucas: Not very, this is Real Madrid at their finest. Whenever the team plays great and are the heavy favourites to win it all, they somehow fail at least in one competition if not all of them (see 2014, 2015) and when everything is falling apart, somehow they find a way to give the fans hope and deliver the European title to rescue the season (see 2000, 2002, 2016).

Nate: I'm still in shock/pleasantly numb euphoria. I really wanted to give Rafa the benefit of the doubt, and as any good RM fan should, tried to support the new boss. But the change in attitude and play, for whatever the reason - be it his fault, the players, or both - was palpable and not pleasant. The team was flat-out uncomfortable to watch. Where we've come in such a short time under Zizou only magnifies my initial repeat of Mike's statement - You'll have to pry my cold, dead corpse from the Zizou bandwagon.

Andrejs: Incredibly shocking to be honest. This was a season destined to end in failure - from Benitez's appointment to even Zidane's. However, what Zizou may still lack in managerial skill, he makes up for in leadership. Battling Barca to the end in La Liga and a Champions League final, what more can we ask for? What's most shocking however is that a bright future may just yet be on the horizon. A new contract for Zidane and an entire summer to prepare; who knows where we'll be come next May?

Kevin: CELESTIAL; Something only the soccer gods could've conjured up. Saying Madrid would be in the UCL final wasn't a prediction any writer could've sold given how disjointed and detached the team appeared. Too many times this season Madrid were like Man City; high expectations but inconsistent as hell. There will always be critics who will point out Madrid's route to the final but there is no way a fan can be displeased on how the team has responded since Zidane's takeover.

Jared: A bit surprising but not all that shocking. We were relatively lucky with each draw in the Champions League and handled business in each meeting. It would have been devastating had Manchester City or Wolfsburg knocked out Real Madrid..

Let's throw tactics out the window for a second. How important is this momentum shift the team is going through? The team is confident, and straight up winning. How much does that come into the play against Atletico in the final?

Mike: I truly believe confidence is a real thing and it absolutely affects the results on the pitch (I mean, Jamie Vardy's entire existence is a case study in the difference being confident can make). Wrapping up the year with 12 Liga wins on the run is huge, especially having eked out the close ones (Valencia, Rayo, Sociedad).

Om: The momentum shift come the tail-end of the season has been huge for this squad. Zidane's tactics aren't too different from that of Benitez's, meaning that the real difference has come from Zidane's man-management abilities; which are his aptitude to: generate immense focus from the squad, make his forwards track back, and get his players to raise their game according to the occasion. But don't expect such momentum to bowl over Atlético in the way it has done to the likes of Barcelona and Wolfsburg. There's a massive break from the end of La Liga to the Champions League final, putting a damper on any momentum our previous wins might've gotten us. But what about momentum in terms of motivation you ask? Didn't you say Zidane is a superb man-manager? Yeah, but so is Simeone. If you think we're going to be fired up and believing in ourselves because of the occasion, then expect Atleti to at least match that passion. They're going to be desperate for revenge and thus I find it hard to believe that momentum is going to give us an edge in this derby. At the most, it will put us on the same mental playing field as Los Colchoneros.

Gabe: Ancelotti's Madrid beat Atleti in Lisbon because of their grit and determination after conceding early (and more than a little luck). They didn't give up and they were eventually rewarded. Madrid will need that exact attitude (and that exact luck) if they're going to beat Atleti again this time. Thankfully, it seems that Zidane radiates the confidence and belief this group seems to need from their manager--that will be key down the stretch I think.

Kiyan: It comes into play in a massive way, but it's only a part of the equation. Atletico will show up just as much as Real Madrid will, and given this is the absolute pinnacle of football - the stage that you've dedicated your entire season's work to reach - both of these teams will be there with all the grit and confidence they have. Which makes me wonder - does Atletico's loss to Levante really disturb their rhythm that profoundly? Simeone's the epitome of a motivating leader, and it's tough to see Real Madrid's confidence somehow trumping Atletico's - though it sure doesn't hurt that Real Madrid are flying right now.

That both teams have such contrasting styles and will be ‘all in' on this one match should make for a fascinating encounter. It's going to come down to the football and execution, as simple as that sounds.

Timm: BIG! I'm a tactics kinda guy, love my numbers. But as someone who's played sports you can't ignore momentum and the fact everyone is clicking. We've had to weather some injuries but I think with the new found confidence that ZZ has installed in this team - it's going to go a long way towards handing Athleti their asses on a silver platter. We know our enemy well, and we know what they're going to throw at us.

Lucas: I guess it's important, but Atletico will be a tough rival no matter how confident Real are. Of course if the players have some sort of self-belief then they will be able to overcome the potential struggles they find during the Final. But don't overestimate the team's confidence: Madrid still need to play better and prove they are the better team if they want to win the title.

Nate: i think this is EVERYTHING going into the final. Atletico are really tough. They know us, we know them. I think it's going to come down to confidence, guts, and of course a little bit of luck.

Andrejs: "You get the feeling that Zidane is being very intelligent, that he knows how to negotiate with the players, and listen to them. He has put in a good mood, even in press conferences. He does not waste words, he learned from [Carlo] Ancelotti, he can douse a controversy with just one sentence, and with a seductive half-smile, convincing and calming. That relaxed mood has been very good for Real Madrid. If the player feels listened to and accepted, his commitment multiplies," said Jorge Valdano.

Again, it's all about Zidane's leadership. Rafa may have been a solid tactician, but his Madrid side lacked an identity, they played with no grit or passion. Confidence and satisfaction within a squad transforms into ambition and effort on the pitch. Time and time again under Zizou did we expect to see the team drop points (Valencia, Las Palmas, etc.), but they nonetheless pulled through with a champion's mentality that just wouldn't accept defeat. Against Atleti, this will be huge. The Rojiblancos are a team to fear; they're incredibly compact, lethal on the counter, and in my opinion, the current best team in world football.

That being said, Los Blancos know that the UCL is their competition. It is a commonly held belief among Madridistas that primarily the UCL matters, everything else is secondary joy. A confident and happy Madrid led by La Novena's wonder goal-scorer may just be too much for Simeone's side to handle.

Kevin: Momentum and form is great. But let's face it, this is a derby. Derbies have that aura of passion and unpredictability. So granted RM do have a slight advantage going into this because of high spirits, but only a slight advantage. Atleti will be going into the match determined to prove a point.

Jared: More important now than ever. Looking at history, we're clearly the underdogs in this matchup. Real Madrid hasn't figured out how to defeat Atleti on a consistent basis tactically and the raw momentum and desire to win might be enough to surge past our crosstown rivals.

If you could make one adjustment against Atletico that Real Madrid haven't been exercising in past derbies, what would that adjustment be?

Mike: I'd start Isco in lieu of Casemiro. Atléti's bread and butter is pinching the ball with two or three players, which forces errant, rushed passes or just straight up turnovers.
Casemiro, for all his strengths, is not a composed passer, and Isco is outstanding at dribbling and controlling the ball. Atléti are going to give Real the ball. Might as well have players out there who are comfortable moving it.

Om: I would implement a counter press, as it's the one way you can tactically outmatch Simeone's side. If Zidane can get his team to press high up the field and form packs of midfielders and forwards willing to defend from the front, you can completely eliminate the problem all teams have against Atletico - organization in defensive transition. Of course this means that the offensive positioning of our central midfielders will be paramount in order to protect the half spaces. Get it wrong, and Atlético will exploit our high line and score bucketloads of goal. But get it right, and the results could be spectacular. Just imagine Bale stripping Juanfran of the ball and launching a 4 vs. 2 overload with Ronaldo and Benzema screaming into the box. Delicious.

Gabe: I would drop Casemiro back further, work with Kroos and Modric to prepare to cover for Marcelo and Carvajal when Madrid loses possession, and I'd be prepared to bring on Isco and James sooner. Madrid can beat Atleti on the wings if Marcelo and Carvajal commit, but that game plan requires the midfield to run and cover. Oh I'd also tell them to take their chances for the love of GOD. I'm actually feeling sick just writing this. How am I going to make it through this match?

Kiyan: Real Madrid once absolutely trounced Atletico Madrid in the Simeone vs Ancelotti era - as hard as it is to fathom now. That night, a 3-0 demolition at the Bernabeu in the 2014 Copa Del Rey season, Real Madrid unleashed a counter-press and played a high line, suffocating Atletico's ability to get out of their backline. Atletico are not known for having the ball, and if they're pressured enough when they have it, they'll slip - that's normal. But for whatever reason, Real Madrid never went back to using that system against Atletico despite it working tremendously well. If I'm Zidane, I watch tape of that game, and try to replicate it - make it as uncomfortable for Atletico as possible in the early minutes.

If anything, Zidane should let loose the hounds for the first 20 minutes and see how unnerved Atletico become. Taking an early lead against Atleti is optimal, and at some point they will have to come out of their shell and leave space.

Timm: Press. Press. Press. And More Pressing. Sometimes RM does this well, other times they let too much space to happen. I think you constantly press, close down and force errors when they're on the ball. Also follow instructions in question 4.

Lucas: Isco starts and not Casemiro. Real need creativity and trust in their offensive capabilities. Starting Casemiro would send a dangerous message to the players as if they needed a defensive presence in the midfield to stand a chance, when that's not accurate as last year's team proved when Modric was healthy. Kroos-Isco-Modric can dominate any given team in Europe.

Nate: I'm excited for Case to be the MF anchor. But as hard as it will be, I think we need to play the "tug-of-war" tension in MF in a more cagey fashion. Traditionally we've tended to flood the wings, create overlaps and then bomb crosses in all day. Godin and company show time and again how ineffective that is. I'd like to see us be more calculated with our attempts to spread their defense wide, but penetrate through the middle with give/go and little balls over the top when the back line is high. We haven't really tried that and not that the CL final is a place to experiment, but since Atleti are content to give away possession, a counter-attack scheme doesn't seem plausible as the only other real option to break them down.

Andrejs: Real Madrid must move the ball quickly. Their midfield trio must be at an incredibly high level. By shifting play quickly, Atleti defenders will have to close down the player with possession, and with quick one-touch passing, Simeone's men may not have time to re-structure themselves, resulting in a potential chance. And then, the BBC have to be lethal.

Bale was incredibly wasteful in Lisbon before scoring his immense header in extra time. Madrid will surely have few chances, and the BBC must capitalize.

Kevin: CASEMIRO. I have been preaching since Casemiro's dominating display against Atleti in the first half of the season that his presence in the midfield is instrumental in games against Los Rojiblancos. Admitedly Casemiro isn't needed for all games but this is one where we need him.

Isco is great and brings more dimensions to the table, but I feel that against Atletico there isn't a need to be too tricky. Do the simple things right and rely on individual brilliance. Sounds risky on the surface but how many times has Madrid relied on this? Counteless. For me, that seems to be Atleti's achilles heel. They have the ability to suffer and withstand waves of attacks, but it's the one-on-one moments I feel that has let them down in the past. I firmly believe that Madrid have better quality in key positions and can capitalize on those situations.

Jared: Start Casemiro! The Brazilian is a lynchpin in this team now and his inclusion allows Modric and Kroos to pull the offensive strings. It's no surprise that defensively the team has been undeniably better when he features which leads to more victories.

How difficult will it be to breakdown Simeone's ridiculously good defensive scheme?

Mike: Two things come to mind.

A) Set pieces must be taken advantage of. Atléti love to foul pragmatically, so the delivery on corners and distant free kicks have got to be good enough to create a few chances out of nothing.

B) Real have a huge edge in speed that should be exploited. Get Bale and Ronaldo out there running into space, I even think James would be valuable here. If Real can put Felipe Luis, Godin, Giménez in positions where they have to chase down Bale and co, that's a good thing.

I'm trying to temper excitement after seeing Atléti leak multiple goals against Levante and Bayern recently, but there's certainly something to be said about those results

Om: If we don't implement a counter press, it will be nigh impossible to break down Atleti without pieces of individual brilliance. Forget Simeone's performances vs. other teams, the fact of the matter is that his team plays their best defensive game vs. Real Madrid. Their horizontal and vertical compactness has been corrected to the thousandth degree and their organization and mutual understanding means they can deal with switch balls without breaking shape. Factor in that Godin and Gimenez are nigh impossible to beat in the air, and you've got no conventional way of breaking down this defense.

Gabe: Yes.     ...

Kiyan: Patience is required. Real Madrid won't get a lot of things they're accustomed to getting on a game-in game-out basis, or things that were given to them against Manchester City in general - cross-field switches in behind full-backs, space in-behind the midfield, and space to shoot. In a way, Atletico tease you defensively. They allow you just enough space to slip a pass in, but they shuffle so quickly that those initial passes could mean nothing, and they force you to reset the offense. They also may allow Real Madrid to beat them on the dribble past one man, but no further than that. Without the ball, they close you down with numbers, forcing you to keep the ball moving before you're closed down, but they're quick enough to slide over to the next man to continue their perpetual hounding.

It's an exhausting scheme though, and no matter how impenetrable their barricade may seem, they will always allow you chances - chances which need to be taken. Can Real Madrid be patient enough to deal with Simeone's rabid tactics? One thing is for sure, Atletico's patience is one of their biggest assets. They don't need the ball, and don't care if they don't have it.

Timm: It'll be hard, but it can be done. What it'll take is possession and patience. Both things that are pretty natural to Real Madrid. Basically Atletico will break down sooner or later and that's when you strike.

Lucas: It will all depend on three players. Marcelo-Isco-Benzema. If Isco doesn't start, it will be more difficult, but those three players are the ones more unpredictable and therefore the ones more difficult to defend.

Nate: See #3 answer, but their clean sheets for the season speaks for itself. Their defense is sick, and breaking that down is just going to be flat out rough. I'm just hoping we keep our heads and are patient and persistent. As nice as it would be to score early so we don't have to wait for another 92:48, the will punish us on the counter if we are too gung-ho too early.

Andrejs: As I said above, incredibly difficult. Los Blancos must also try to appeal to the referee. Atleti is known for their brash and at times near violent football. While it may not be the most sportsmanlike suggestion, Zidane's player must encourage the ref to be especially aware of Atleti's rough football.

Kevin: As I wrote before, there's no doubt that Atleti will frustrate us and be glad to seize possession. In addition, their pressing in tight spaces is also a vital component to their style. However, with Casemiro fighting fire with fire, and Kroos and Modric running the midfield, I think the main concern for Real is actually Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres. The game against Bayern showed kinks in Atleti's armor, but also showed their ability to counter-attack. Madrid's trident and midfield will def. be up for the game, but personally I'm hoping Madrid's backline doesn't expose itself and rely too much on Navas' heroics.

Jared: Difficult. It always is but Real Madrid possess arguably the best attacking three in the world. Cristiano and Bale are expected to show up in matches like these. Set pieces will be crucial to breaking the defensive scheme. Much like two years ago, Real Madrid must score to force Atleti to open up.

Scenario: Real Madrid win La Undecima. One hour post-match, what are you doing?

Mike: Soaking in a bathtub full of Guinness with "Come Sail Away" playing in the background.

Om: I'm writing my tactical article right now because celebrations can wait (though I did take some time to check Bozz's twitter account and see that he has grudgingly posted on twitter that he will name his firstborn, male or female, "Gerrard Xavi Messi").

Gabe: Probably drinking like a madm....errr dealing with my stress and emotions in some other healthy, adult way. Definitely not drinking.

Kiyan:

Timm: Toasting another Burnside Bourbon (good local Portland OR Hooch) on the rocks to the 11 times champions of Europe.

Nate: If it's anything like the 10th, I'll still have dried tears on my cheeks literally glowing with euphoria. Honestly though, the 10th almost killed me from suspense, I'm hoping for a much more comfortable affair this year. As "boring" as it might be, an early lead with dominant possession and minimal chances on their side would please me (and my blood pressure) very much.

Lucas: Work.

Andrejs: Cibeles, no doubt. I'm lucky enough to live in Spain's capital, and this capital belongs to Los Blancos.

Kevin: Having a party at my house.

Jared: Hopefully celebrating with Madridistas alike in Charlotte

Prediction for the final?

Mike: Real Madrid 1-0 Atletico Madrid

Om: I'll be hung, but I'm predicting a 1-0 win to Atlético de Madrid.

Gabe: 1-1, Real Madrid on penalties ... Because I was made to suffer--it seems to be my lot in life.

Kiyan: 2-1 Real Madrid.

Timm: I think it's going to be a tightly contested match, with Real Madrid coming out on top with a 2-1 scoreline. Nava's is going to shine only letting that one by - he's been one of the rocks of the team all season and I don't think that's really going to change with the Final.

Lucas: 2-0 Real Madrid.

Nate: We know from last time's final score that when they crack, they bleed. But getting them to crack is the hard part, so the pragmatist in me should say a nervy RM 1-0 AM. But I'm going to go with my desire to see a comfortable win, plus the fact that Atleti dropped points at the end of La Liga and have shown just a little fraying, so I'm going to go with final answer RM 3-1AM.

Andrejs: According to ESPN's Delaney, "[t]his historic fixture is so close that it could just come down to blind luck on the day."

Real Madrid 1 - Atletico de Madrid 0

Kevin: It's going to be a cringe-worthy and cagey match but... Madrid wins 2-1. Party at my place.

Jared: Real 2-1