Real Madrid vs Atletico Madrid - Tactical Preview: Luka Modric could be the key for Real
At the end of a campaign where both have battled in 3 tournaments almost to the end, there is nothing new either team can throw at each other. Suffice it to say, this will be a direct contest between Diego Simeone’s smarts and Carlo Ancelotti’s experience. Both can dig deep: Simeone has broken the Liga duopoly and defeated Jose Mourinho in a Cup final, neither of which can be scoffed at; while this will be Ancelotti’s sixth Champions League final as manager or player – and he has only lost once.
Both sides are wracked by injury – Karim Benzema, Pepe and Diego Costa could all start on the bench – and additionally, Real’s most important functional player, Xabi Alonso, will watch from the stands owing to suspension. Real still have a first-class bench to call upon, but Asier Illaramendi is struggling for confidence and this may not be the right occasion to throw him on. Instead, Luka Modric could partner Isco, who was impressive in both defence and attack against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final, in central midfield. They will be directly against a strong and energetic Atletico midfield of Gabi, Koke and Arda Turan that specializes in physical challenges, so Ancelotti might be tempted to bring on a third CM and position him defensively.
The last time these sides met, in March, the result was a war of attrition: stop-start, aggressive and energetic rather than creative, which suits Atletico’s style. But like Real, Atletico could start without their main centre-forward. It’s not yet certain that Costa is out (he’s resorting to some dubious techniques to regain fitness in time for the final), but he is unlikely to take a risk before the World Cup. Without Costa’s incredible physical strength and work rate, Atletico will sit even deeper and try to nullify the impact of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale on the counter-attack.
Key battle: Garcia vs Modric
But even these players need their supply, and that is where Luka Modric needs to step up. The Croatian playmaker put in a man-of-the-match performance against Barcelona, working hard in defence, and hitting Alonso-esque long diagonals to set up attacks. His workload will increase in the Spaniard’s absence, given that Ancelotti now employs a 4-3-3 formation to play Real’s super-wingers together, and the supply must necessarily come from deep midfield. Atletico’s game is reactive, so they will probably put Raul Garcia on Modric to stop his passing. That was the role Garcia played against Alonso in that March encounter, and his height offers an added aerial advantage. Does Modric have the physicality to match Garcia’s? Visibly, no – but we’ll know soon enough.
Apart from Ronaldo, the only player on the pitch to win a Champions League final is David Villa, and the burden of scoring will fall largely on his shoulders. Here, his Spain teammate Sergio Ramos will have his work cut out. Villa prefers to stay high up the pitch, pulling covering defenders out of position and allowing others to run in behind with the ball. Nevertheless, he will fancy his chances without the powerful Costa to watch.
At the other end of the pitch, Gabi and Koke will have to deal with Angel di Maria. The Argentine playmaker possesses incredible stamina and bursts of pace, and his creative ability makes him arguably more dangerous outside the final third than Ronaldo or Bale. They may be tempted to sit deeper and squeeze the space he has to run in, but this would reduce their ability to compete for the ball in midfield.
Real lack the physicality to compete in midfield, so their only chance is to sit deep, try to draw Atletico forward and hit them on the counter-attack. Any three of Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema and Di Maria are likely to start, and all have the ability to influence big games – but Modric’s role will be crucial. He and Isco will be Real’s first line of defence, and his passing could well be the launchpad for attacks.
If he’s on song, Real can take the game to Atletico. Otherwise, this could well be an absolutely physical battle – and the Rojiblancos are too well-equipped to lose that kind of contest.