I had a nice e-mail exchange with the eternal enemy about the Champions League Final on the 28th. A huge thanks to Robbie Dunne over at SB Nation's Into The Calderon - he's doing a fantastic job over there.
Kiyan: Atletico's performance against Barca in the 2nd leg of the quarter finals was one of the best defensive performances I have - ever - seen. It was some kind of weird sorcery that. The 2nd leg against Bayern was a bit different. It seemed like Atleti barely held on, and Bayern proved your defense can be vulnerable. What changed?
Robbie: Atletico love nothing more than when their opponents' attacking build-up is laborious and languid. Many teams think that if they start slow and keep possession, eventually Atletico Madrid will crack. This is very much not the case and when teams start slowly like that, whether you're Barcelona or Bayern, it is very hard to switch gears and mentality to really pour it on as the clock ticks on. Barcelona managed to do just that in the second half because they have such good attackers and Bayern did it from the start at the Allianz Arena. I think the moral of the story is not to start slow against Atletico unless you are supremely talented to the point that you can turn it on and off at will. Can Real Madrid do that? We'll know after Saturday night's encounter.
Kiyan: If I can sum up some of the general comments from fans, it seems to be this: most Real Madrid fans have accepted that Atletico have owned us in the Simeone era, but feel like there's a psychological edge when it comes to Europe (decima, quarter finals last season). Do you think there is some kind of mental barrier that Atletico have when it comes to facing Real Madrid in the Champions League? Is that real?
Robbie: Maybe for fans and people outside Atletico's inner circle but I would never underestimate just how strong a group Simeone has manufactured. Juanfran told everyone that they would come back and eventually win one and I do believe he meant that. Also, if there is a sense of psychological edge, Atletico's players will enjoy it. They enjoy when there is a perception that they are not the favorites and somehow inferior. In a more positive manner than Jose Mourinho encourages, Simeone and his side enjoy that conflict and almost need it. With Simeone over them, I would never count Atletico out.
Kiyan: Atletico's identity lies with their defensive tenacity, but they also have Griezman who can break you down in so many ways. How important is he to Atletico? Well wait, that's a rhetorical question... How do you stop him exactly?
Robbie: I'll let you know when the first team manages to do it! No, in all seriousness, I think the best way to keep him quiet is to pressure the ball coming to him. Against Bayern in the first half, the pressure applied to Koke, Augusto and the other players looking to move the ball forward was immense and Griezmann suffered. I think the key is to cut off the supply and try to isolate him on his own.
Kiyan: As an Atletico supporter, what worries you the most facing this Real Madrid team?
Robbie: It goes without saying that Real Madrid are so good in so many areas of the field. It's not really Ronaldo that I am too worried about but Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale. The Welshman has a knack for showing up in big games. Atletico are quite physical and every time they play a world class team, I have a fear we will lose a player to reckless tackling like what happened against Barcelona and Torres. I have no problem losing a fair game but when it's 11 on 10, it's backs to the wall and not really enjoyable to watch at all!
Kiyan: Torres continues to surprise me. He's in really nice form to end the season here, but more importantly, he's also just a big game player. How important is he in the final?
Robbie: Ramos and Pepe have plenty of attitude and they need a player with as much attitude as them to keep them pushed back. Torres most certainly has that and I'd expect Real's centre-halves will have their hands full with him. I don't want to start sounding like Simeone but with Atletico, it feels like it's always the collective I am looking out for. Torres is important, sure, but no more than Juanfran, Saul or Oblak. Against Real Madrid it will be probably be backs to the wall stuff and whatever Torres can get off them, hopefully he will.
Kiyan: What would you say are the key differences from this final, and the one in 2014?
Robbie: Health. Looking back at Atletico's preparation for the final in 2014 was heartbreaking. There was talk of Diego Costa using horse placenta to heal his hamstring and it just seemed as if it wasn't going to work. We were also so reliant on Costa back then that it, in itself, probably wasn't healthy. Arda was also suffering from a recurring ankle injury. I think the fact that we had won the league, it might have seemed as though the Champions League was a bonus or something. This time, we are relying solely on the CL to secure silverware and Atletico have learned some valuable lessons from that 2014 final.
Kiyan: What will be Atletico's plan? Where will their goals come from?
Robbie: We might actually be surprised. Obviously Torres and Griezmann are liable to score any time but I think a goal from a set-piece or a late run into the box by Saul could get us the opener. I think what Simeone will do is come out all guns a-blazing to harness that natural energy that comes with a Champions League Final. He won't try to subdue his players and will try to ruffle Real's feathers early on, get on the referee's side and net an early goal. And then, same as ever, Atletico will sit back and try to catch Real Madrid on the break when they press forward.
Kiyan: Outside of the usual suspects, who will be Atletico's x-factor?
Robbie: Filipe Luis and Juanfran, I'll say. If they can find the balance necessary to add to the attack but also keep Ronaldo and Bale in check, we should be in a good position late on in the game. Juanfran can also take advantage of Marcelo's tendency to push forward. With the likes of Griezmann taking up the space vacated by Marcelo and Juanfran creating an overlap, Atletico might have some success on the left and right flank.
Kiyan: How many statues of Diego Simeone have you built in your house?
Robbie: Just the four. His name can not be taken in vein in my house, we have a national holiday that celebrates the great man that coincides with his birthday on April 28th. It's a lot of fun.
Robbie: 2-1 Atletico. They will go 2-0 up through Saul and Torres before Bale pulls one back late on and Atletico spend the last 10 minutes repelling Real Madrid attacks and sitting deeper and deeper.