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Real Madrid must get ready for toughest challenge of the season

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Less than a week to go.

Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Preparations for the Champions League final are underway in earnest now; and with the derby ahead Real Madrid's players will certainly need to focus mentally on the task.

Atlético aren't an easy team to play against and it's going to be a case of preparing physically for the game while addressing the psychological aspect at the same time.  Zinedene Zidane will be well aware that Atlético are likely to play mind games both in the run up to the match and once the game has actually started.  Even at this early stage he'll be telling the players how vital it is to remain detached from any of Diego Simeone's attempts to unsettle them and to be able to ignore any unnecessary distractions that might come along between now and then.

The Argentinian coach spoke the other day about how he feels his own team will play.  As we all suspected, Simeone confirmed that Atlético will take the game to Real.  The plan will be to press high and aim to put as much pressure on the Real defenders as possible in order to try to pen them in, hoping to force Real into conceding possession.  In addition to this, it reads as though the other emphasis from Atlético will be on denying players like Toni Kroos and Luka Modric the time and space to run the game at their own pace.

Simeone expects a "high-intensity encounter" which could be interpreted as code for "harass them, get after them, and don't give them a minute's peace to be able to settle on the ball."

One thing Cholo is good at is motivating people to the point of winding them up and he'll certainly have his team fired up in Milan.  Real mustn't bite and the players need to stay disciplined throughout the whole ninety minutes   -€” and beyond if need be -   but that's a lot easier said than done.  If Atlético are allowed to win the midfield then Real are going to find it difficult to play and the game will quickly turn into a physical battle.  This is the last thing that Zidane will want to happen.  In these situations the risks are always there that certain Real players will take the bait and end up being red-carded.  If that happens then Atlético gain the psychological upper hand never mind the numerical advantage.  The game then starts to run away so it's essential to stay in control.

As we enter the week when the proper build-up starts, the opportunity exists for Zidane to put in some serious work with the players between now and the day of the game.  A big part of this will be addressing the psychological aspect without focussing too much on any comments that might be coming from the Atlético camp.  Both teams know how each other will play on the night and it's going to be question of getting the game-plan settled for the occasion and the key is going to be on how individual players react to any given situation at the time.

Of course, there will also be some injury worries as the days go past leading up to the final because at this stage in the season, people are going to be feeling the effects of the long campaign both in physical and mental terms.  Any old injuries that begin to play up or new injuries that present as a slight niggle over the next few days are going to create a natural doubt in the minds of the recipients.  At the end of a very long season it's only human nature to be worried that anything occurring at this stage will affect their chances of turning out in the final.  There will be updates on James Rodríguez and Álvaro Arbeloa in the next day or so; but indications are that Zinedine Zidane will have a full squad fit and available.  There doesn't appear to be any doubts over the fitness of Lucas Vázquez or Cristiano Ronaldo at the moment.

In the regular season, any injuries within a week of the next game often rule people out; or at least turn the odds in favour of not being able to recover quickly enough and this is going to be the worry for Zidane.   Between now and the weekend, all he needs to do is keep the players ticking over with regards to their fitness and very little high-intensity physical work will be required -€” if at all.   Any hard physical sessions will have been dealt with last week after the players returned from a couple of days off following the Deportivo game; and it's likely that these would have been targeted mainly at those who might be involved in the final but haven't been in the habit of playing a full ninety minutes on a regular basis.

In terms of tactics, teamwork and injuries, Zidane will be expected to play his cards close to his chest once again.  Madrid is a small place where football is concerned and secrets are few.  Media personnel all have their own contacts within the clubs, but more importantly they also talk collectively among themselves.  There will be just as much attention paid to what their colleagues are saying before and after media gatherings as there will be to Zidane's official statements.

Let's face it, we can't really expect him to give too much away between now and the final and I guess Diego Simeone will be much the same.  Both coaches know exactly how they're going to approach the game and they can only keep each other guessing for so long.

Ultimately, it's going to depend on how well the key players perform on the night and that's something that the coaches can only influence up to a point; hence the emphasis on mental preparation as much as on the physical side.  It's a time to emphasise the positive aspects about Real Madrid and how to make the most of these in the days to come.