Champions League final: Key battles

Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final pits two sides with contrasting styles against one another.

On the one hand, you have rookie manager Zinedine Zidane in charge of 10-time champions Real Madrid and their collection of superstars. On the other hand, is cross-city rivals Atletico Madrid, who have been drilled into a well-oiled machine by Diego Simeone.

We take a look at some of the tactical battles that might decide who becomes the European club champion:

Cristiano Ronaldo v Juanfran

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In the Champions League final three years ago, in which Real eventually beat Atletico 4-1, all three of Los Blancos’ goals came down Atletico’s right, where Juanfran was patrolling the field.

In the post-match dissection, the Spanish right-back was ultimately made the scapegoat for Atletico’s late capitulation, which was an incredibly harsh assessment of his performance on the night.

Juanfran had largely kept Ronaldo quiet, but was clearly hobbling in the final stages of the match and since Simeone had already turned to the substitutes bench on three occasions, Juanfran had to soldier on.

In the 10 Madrid derbies since then, Ronaldo has failed to score and it is safe to say Juanfran has played a key role in keeping the Portuguese captain quiet, particularly when he shows him the outside.

Ronaldo’s answer to that tactic has been to drift infield, serving the role of a support striker who is far more of an aerial threat than the Spain international.

Can Madrid snuff out the Atletico counter-attacks?

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Generally, Atletico are compact side, both front-to-back and left-to-right, who have made a name for themselves as arguably the most effective counter-attacking outfit in the world.

While Fernando Torres has led the line superbly since a return to the club of his youth, the key men for Atletico here are Antoine Griezmann and the midfield duo of Koke and Saul. If the Atletico midfield can supply Griezmann with early balls after broken play, chances are Simeone’s side will have a great time of it on Saturday.

For Real, it will be important that Casemiro keeps his wits about him throughout. The Brazilian holding midfielder might be the least talented ball-player in the side, but he has been central to Madrid’s resurgence under Zidane late in the season.

Much like the balance of the Madrid midfield fell apart with the departure of Claude Mkelele more than a decade ago, Madrid completely fell apart when Casemiro was left out against Barcelona in November. Since then, he has become a fixture in the side and seems to perform well the bigger the occasion. And they don’t come much bigger than this…

Chances are the 24-year-old will be heavily pressed by the on-rushing Atletico attackers, and since Madrid aren’t exactly a side that keeps its shape well, Casemiro will often be left with the decision to concede a tactical foul.

Expect a couple of tactical fouls on the edge of Madrid box during the match.


Torres v Sergio Ramos

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Much column space has been filled waxing lyrical over Griezmann in recent times, and with good reason: he is without a doubt Atletico’s biggest goal threat in open play.

Torres, though, has been something of an unsung hero since returning to the Calderon. With age slowly starting to catch up with ‘El Nino’, the former Liverpool and Chelsea striker has had to change his game somewhat during his second stint with Atletico.

The player who used to bury defenders with his blistering acceleration simply doesn’t exist anymore. He has always been a selfless player and nowadays is far more of a target man who uses body well in order to bring his team-mates into the game, whether as the lone front man or when partnered by Griezmann.

Probably tasked with marking Torres is his former Spanish team-mate Ramos, who has seemingly relapsed into the walking red card he was earlier in his career.

After making a name for himself as a feisty defender that would often play with his heart instead of his head, Ramos had developed into a composed centre-back a couple of years ago, but in recent times his old problems have started to rear their nasty head once more.

Torres remains particularly efficient at drifting wide to pull the opposition defense out of their natural positions, while timing his angled runs well.

If Ramos falls for Torres’ tricks, the Madrid defense might have a long night ahead of them.


Quick switches of play

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Atletico’s organisation is probably the trademark aspect of their play under Simeone and from whichever angle you look at, they are a tough nut to crack.

Madrid’s best chance to break down their stubborn defense is by switching play from flank to flank regularly. Easier said than done ,though, since Atletico are also adept at closing down the passing channels so that the opponents can’t take the risk of playing a cross-field ball.

Nevertheless, in Toni Kroos and Luka Modric Madrid have two of, if not the two most intelligent passers of the ball in the world. If either of them can switch play to the attacking full-backs of Marcelo and Dani Carvajal with any regularity, who in turn bring the likes of Ronaldo and Gareth Bale into play, then even a defense as resolute as Atletico’s can be broken down.

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