It's hard to believe that it's only been two years since 92:48. It's even harder to believe where we've ended up after such a tumultuous year. But, buckle your seatbelts, because one point back with two match days left in the league, and a few weeks away from yet another Champions League final, it's going to be quite a ride.
Following the glow of Wednesday's victory at the Bernabeu, it doesn't take long to switch gears and already start thinking about the team we'll be facing in the final on May 28th in Milan. Our cross-town rivals will be staring back at us for the second time in three years.
As Spain continues to dominate Europe, the unlikely force has become Atleti. Where once, correct or not, they proudly perpetuated the "wrong side of the tracks" underfunded, underdog team in Madrid, they have now stubbornly forced a different persona on the world, if no more admirable, at least one worthy of respect.
Leading up to the Derbi, Real Madrid prepare to face an Atletico Madrid team both similar and different than the one they did two years ago in Lisbon.
The Maligned, Oppressed Underdogs
In 2014 in Lisbon, it's fair to say that most of the world was surprised to see that the Royal White's La Decima competitor was their lowly city cousins, Atletico Madrid. Even thought Atleti were neck-and-neck challenging Real and Barca in the final weeks of the Liga, they had yet to be taken seriously.
If anything, what reputation they were building was based more on their bad-boy manager, Diego Simeone, their thuggish attitudes, and their rough, defensive style of play. The club wasn't shy about perpetuating the notion that they were the cast-offs of the tyrannical oligarchy across town. Perhaps to convince everyone that the club hadn't been wracked with corruption and debt, they pushed their scrappy and allegedly underfunded plight, and united under Cholo as a self-styled proletariat - one in their mission, personality, and play.
This stigmatized reputation may have been part of the PR campaign for notoriety, but the squad that took the field that night in Lisbon were hardly hand-me-downs. David Villa, Diego Costa, Koke, Gabi, Raul Garcia, Godin, Juanfran, Philipe Luis, Tiago, Miranda, and of course Courtois in goal was a roster many clubs would envy.
We all know what happened that night, and how thoroughly challenging that match was. With many of the same squad two year on, will the new face of Atleti be any different?
The Maligned, Legitimate Contenders
One thing is for sure, after spending over 122 million Euros in the transfer window, only behind Manchester City, United, and Valencia, Atletico can no longer claim they are from the destitute part of town.
But as their formerly mis-appropriate reputation is put to pasture, they find themselves facing another one - one that actually and ironically seems to hold on to the previously inaccurate notion that they aren't class enough, let alone world-class enough to be taken seriously.
It's fascinating that in spite of their incredible consistency across all competitions, their dogged determination, their highly admirable team play, and their undeniable results, they find themselves still far outside the circle of power that is Barca, Bayern, Real Madrid, heck, even Chelsea/Juventus/PSG.
Nevermind that the road to the final for Atletico had to go straight through Barca and Bayern back-to-back.
Nevermind that they have had an astounding 23 clean sheets in 36 matches.
Whatever reputation they may or may not have, and whatever you might want to say about their style of play, their consistent results surely merit respect.
What this means for the Derbi
We know that Atletico are tough, and for a while they seemed to stymie us over and over. But we also know that we beat them two years ago, barely lost two months ago, and are on an incredible run of form (and high from the Zizou kool-aid).
Beating Los Rojiblancos is going to come down to a few key points.
Zidane is going to have to get this just right. If Atletico clog the center as they are wont to do, bombing crosses in from the wings, as we've seen time and again, is not going to be as productive as we need it to be. Unless of course Mister 92:48-Ramos and Mister 9-Headed-Goals-Bale can direct in a couple headers off early corners to take the fire out of Atleti's belly.
Whatever the tactics Simeone incorporates, Zizou will have to adapt and be ready to counter. There is no 2nd leg to the final, and we'll be pushing to get it done in the first 90 minutes.
We've all witnessed the intense press that Real Madrid have occasionally demonstrated under Zidane. It's likely that Atletico will let us have the majority of possession, but just like the determination needed to press well, that same level of determination will be needed to stifle Atletico's occasional counters, deal with their niggling fouls, and keep our wits about us.
What is a more powerful motivator - the call for revenge or the yearning to repeat and relive the magic and emotion of winning La Decima? I tend to think that the former breeds desperation, and the latter, the patience and wisdom to execute when needed. I firmly believe that the magnetism of La Undecima on the heels of the experience of lifting the trophy two years ago will favor Real Madrid.
In the end, desire, luck, fate, heroism
After all is said and done, we know how fickle this game can be. And all the preparation, passion and training in the world can't guarantee a victory. But we're back in the final again!
A Derbi final. For the second time in two years - who would have thought.
And while the red and white stripes may look the same as they did that night two years ago when we defeated them, and in many ways still are, there's a new air of legitimacy and respect that rightly should accompany this year's final in Milan.
Atletico, despise them as we must, have earned their place here, and in the elite of Europe. They might unjustly still be fighting for respect, but they've definitely earned it.
So we will give them the respect they are due, just as we would any other capable opponent.
Then we'll go and beat them again. And do what we do best as the true Kings of Europe - lift yet another Champions League trophy.