With Real Madrid travelling to the Vicente Calderon for what was going to be the final European game and Madrid derby in the historic stadium, Atletico had a near-impossible task on their hands; overturn a 3-0 defecit suffered in the first leg to reach their third final in five seasons.
In what appears to be Simeone’s last season at his beloved Atletico, he stated in the pre-match press conference that the squad, fans and himself believed it was possible and they were going to throw everything they had at it. His over-exaggerated celebrations in Atleti’s La Liga win at the weekend was further evidence that the club were ready to cause havoc for 90 minutes on Wednesday evening.
Very few thought it was actually possible, given the attacking talent that Real posess in their squad. Should Zidane’s men score, it would mean that Atletico would have to somehow score 5 times. Could they find the balance between throwing the kitchen sink at Real, yet ensuring they weren’t caught on the counter?
Well, they very nearly did it. After one of the best 45 minutes in Champions League history, Atletico thundered into a 2-0 lead within 20 minutes, with a Saul header and Griezmann penalty. The Calderon – which was scarily loud all game and had Simeone as chief cheerleader on the touchline, thought the “Remontada” was on. Take one look at Twitter and every neutral thought the same. Real looked shaken, unable to cope with in particular Carrasco’s pace and directness, who caused Marcelo all sorts of issues on the right hand side of Atletico’s attack. They were penned in, with talisman Cristiano Ronaldo struggling to get the better of Diego Godin at the heart of Atletico’s defence. The masterplan was working.
It was imperative that Atletico kept the score at 2-0 until half time – as dominant as they were, a Real Madrid away goal would completely kill off any hope the Red and White’s had of progressing to the final. However, in the 42nd minute, Karim Benzema somehow avoided the challenge of 3 Atletico defenders to brilliantly setup Toni Kroos to shoot from 12 yards, only for keeper Oblak to make a stunning save. Despite the save, the ball trickled back out and fell to the feet of Isco, who tapped the ball in to secure the crucial away goal for Real. The Calderon fell silent except for a pocket of 2,000 Real fans who celebrated the goal wildly. They knew it was over, the Atletico fans knew it was over, Simeone knew it was over.
The rest of the game saw much of the same action, with Atletico pressing and probing for a goal, only to be denied by an exceptional performance yet again from Real ‘keeper Keylor Navas – with his point blank save from Kevin Gameiro being a particular highlight.
A special mention must go to Isco and Modric’s performances in the heard of Real’s midfield last night. When the pressure was on and Atletico were rampant, the two playmakers took control of the tie and played the game as if it was a 5-a-side kickabout at a local park. Isco in particular had a sensational game which further strengthened his claim for a new Real contract which is expected to be offered to him in the next few months – his performances in general this season have seen large sections of the Real Madrid fanbase call to see him start ahead of Gareth Bale, even when the Welshman has been fit and available. Wherever the Spaniard decides to spend the rest of his career, regular playing time is essential – he’s just too good to be sitting on the bench under Zidane.
At the final whistle, the heavens opened and a huge thunderstorm hit the Calderon, with lightning lighting up the skies above the ground. It was a fitting ending to the game, which saw the majority of Atletico fans stay behind to applaud their team, whilst ripping up seats to keep as souvenirs before the ground is closed for good.
For all the effort Atletico displayed, Simeone still can’t get the better of Atletico’s cross-city rivals in Europe. Whether he will be in charge for one more go at it next season remains to be seen. As for Zidane? well, there’s no doubt that he’s got the magic (or is it lucky?) touch required to lead the Madrid giants to another European Cup win, but the defensive might of Italian giants Juventus will be the toughest challenge they have faced in recent memory.
Ronaldo v Bonucci, Dybala v Ramos, Buffon v Navas – there will be fascinating battles all over the pitch in Cardiff on June 3rd. Do not miss it.