26th May 2016.
Two years ago, Real Madrid beat Bayern Munich on an aggregate of 5-0 to reach the finals of the 2013/14 Champions League match. A day later, their crosstown rivals, Atletico Madrid, beat Chelsea 3-1 to earn their spot in the championship match. The Vikings ultimately went on to win the tournament and clinch a record 10th UCL trophy-though Atletico's Mattress Makers fought hard and forced extra time in the title game.
Fast forward to now and it's easy to feel like we're experiencing something similar to dÃ©jÃ vu. The semi-final draw included three of four teams that made it this far in 2013/14 (Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich) while the fourth challenger was an English team (this year, Manchester City stood in for Chelsea). This time around, Atletico Madrid got to face off against Bayern Munich, eliminating the German heavyweights on away goals. Real Madrid, meanwhile, got to tangle with Man City, ultimately sending the Premier Leaguers packing by a narrow 1-0 margin.
Now, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid are both headed back to the Champions League final-not just a rematch of their 2013/14 title game, but also just another rivalry match between two teams that know each other all too well. It's arguably not the most electrifying turn of events that could have happened based on the UCL semi-final draw. A battle between Bayern Munich and Manchester City, for instance, would have been fascinating, thanks to Pep Guardiola's current allegiance to the former and his future allegiance to the latter.
Still, a result is a result, and on May 28th, Madrid's two top-tier football clubs will head to San Siro in Milan to fight for the Champions League title once again. The question is, will the outcome this time around be different than it was two years ago?
Uncertain Semi-Final Results
On one hand, it's always tough to doubt Real Madrid. The Vikings had a few hiccups earlier this season when they lost some of their offensive spark under the management of Rafael Benitez. With Zinedine Zidane occupying the head coaching position, though, Real have been on fire lately, stringing together an impressive 10-game winning streak in the La Liga. Add Cristiano Ronaldo's always impressive presence-he's scored 16 goals in the 2015/16 Champions League so far, nine more than Atletico standout Antoine Griezmann-and Real Madrid might be the frontrunners here.
Still, the four semi-final games did little to indicate a true "frontrunner" this year. In fact, you could argue that neither Real Madrid nor Atletico looked like a UEFA championship team based on their semi-final performances.
Atletico's Dubious Advancement
Of the two teams, Atletico probably had the better semi-final round. Drawn against the tougher team, the Mattress Makers had their work cut out for them going into the semi-finals. Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski had eight goals apiece heading into the second-to-last round, Manuel Neuer was keeping clean sheets pretty dependably, and Pep Guardiola was coaching his last-ever UEFA tournament at Bayern Munich. The German soccer squad had both the talent and the narrative to go all the way.
When Atletico Madrid forced a surprising 1-0 win in the home leg of the semi-finals, though, things seemed to be looking up for the Mattress Makers. Sure, they didn't have a big aggregate lead, but they had kept the Bavarians from landing an away goal. That fact proved to be pivotal.
Bayern Munich went on to beat Atletico in their home leg, scoring first with a first from Xabi Alonso and breaking a later stalemate with a 74-minute shot from Lewandowski. Still, a 54-minute goal from Antoine Griezmann was enough to tie the aggregate at 2-2 and to give the Mattress Makers an away goal. So while the Bavarians won the game, Atletico won the right to advance.
Speaking candidly, Atletico Madrid's technical victory was a pretty weak moment in what should have been a fairly climactic moment for the Champions League tournament. Bayern Munich were the unquestionably better team on the field in their second-leg game against Atletico Madrid, dominating three-quarters of the possession and recording more than five times more shots on goal. Still, thanks to the away goals rule, the Mattress Makers earned the spot in the final. One wonders if scrapping away goals and relying more on extra time and penalty shootouts would yield more exciting Champions League football.
Real Madrid Coast to a 14th Champions League Final
Even when away goals don't figure into the conversation, though, Champions League football can turn out less exciting than it looks on paper. Such was the case in the two-leg battle between Real Madrid and Manchester City, which, in total, yielded just one goal.
Manchester City should have been able to make something happen in this contest. Despite the superior offensive strength of Real Madrid, the Sky Blues mostly silenced the Vikings throughout their two semi-final legs. The first leg ended in a 0-0 stalemate, with Manchester City trailing Real in shots on goal, but still managing to get almost half of the possession time. Crucially, City also prevented Real from getting any away goals-a factor that gave the Sky Blues a great opportunity to reach the Champions League final for the first time in club history.
Instead, Real Madrid eked out a win in the second leg, winning 1-0 at the Bernabeu to clinch their 14th Champions League finals appearance. Still, things very easily could have gone differently. The two teams split possession pretty evenly once again, and while Real Madrid got more shots on goal, none of them found their mark. Cristiano Ronaldo remained scoreless for the second UCL game in a row while the absence of Karim Benzema-still recovering from an injury-perhaps left Real's offense a bit under-supported.
In 2014, the Vikings headed off to the UCL final looking like a team that wasn't going to be denied a milestone 10th title. This year, Real Madrid got there on a pair of lucky breaks. The first came at the 20-minute mark when Gareth Bale deflected a shot off City's Fernando for a 1-0 lead. The point was technically labeled an own-goal, though you could still credit Bale for the effort.
Madrid's luckier break came late in the match when City standout Sergio Aguero seemed to enter a do-or-die mode for his team. At 89 minutes, Aguero sent a beautiful shot hurtling toward the home team's goal. For a moment, it looked like Aguero had beaten Real goalkeeper Keylor Navas to score the equalizer-sending City fans into premature celebration and silencing the stands full of Vikings fans. Unfortunately for the Sky Blues, Aguero's shot was just shy of the target, sailing perhaps mere centimeters over the crossbar.
If Aguero's aim had been just an inch or two lower, we would be talking about a Manchester City-Atletico Madrid Champions League final. A draw would have earned the Sky Blues a win on away goals and sent them to their first UCL championship match. Instead, football fans will get to watch Real Madrid play for an 11th title.
Predicting the Final Outcome
Despite the close shaves for both Bayern Munch and Manchester City, both teams just didn't do quite enough in their second legs to gain aggregate advantages. Deserved or not, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid are back in the final. As a result, the La Liga will clinch a third straight Champions League title-a major win for the league and its already impressive UEFA coefficient.
So who wins in May 28's winner-take-all final? After a confusing and competitive semi-final round, it's honestly difficult to answer that question. On one hand, Real have history on their side. They have won the Champions League 10 times and arguably care about it more than anyone else. They've also got a hell of an offense and a coach who seems to have re-centered the club after last season's dearth of silverware. With the Vikings trailing in the La Liga and disqualified from the Copa del Rey, the UCL is their best chance to not go home empty-handed two years in a row.
With that said, Real had probably the easier semi-final draw of the two teams and still struggled more against Manchester City than Atletico did against Bayern Munich. Sure, the Mattress Makers are zero-for-two in the Champions League final, having lost to Bayern in 1974 and Real in 2014. But Atletico Madrid are a better team than the were two years ago, with one of the best defenses in the world and a strong finisher in Antoine Griezmann.
If Manchester City could disable Real Madrid's famed offense, there's reason to believe that Atletico can do the same. In fact, the Mattress Makers did just that in February, beating Real Madrid 1-0 thanks to a 53-minute goal from Griezmann. So while the Champions League final could easily go either way, we're betting on Atletico Madrid to prevail at last.
Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid to Do Battle for Champions League Title 2016
26th May 2016.