Can Atletico finally beat Real Madrid?

The FC crew debate whether or not Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid’s UCL semi-final tie will be high-scoring or a chess match.
Stewart Robson makes his picks as to who will prevail in the Champions League semifinals.
Stewart Robson makes his picks as to who will prevail in the Champions League semifinals.
With the UCL rounding down to its final four teams, the FC crew assess who they believe will make the final in Cardiff.
Atletico Madrid face city rivals Real once again in their quest for the club’s first-ever Champions League title.

If they wanted to distract themselves from the stress of preparing for the Champions League semifinal, Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane and his counterpart, Diego Simeone of Atletico, could lose themselves in an ocean of statistics, diagrams and analytical projections.

I pray to a higher authority that this isn’t the case but they may, right at this moment, be poring over heat maps and trying to work out if green and pink and yellow “go” together. In fact, I think that technology permits Zidane and Simeone to have, secretly, played this match out using virtual reality headgear already.

The phone call would have been: “Hola, Zinedine; Diego here! You’ve had your fun… Lisbon was brutal, but Milan was just a step too far. Let’s get together in your man cave, chez Zidane, and get the technology visors on; first to three’s the winner! Whaddya say?”

Stats and analytical models abound in football these days. How far players run, what their maximum speeds are on and off the ball, in which moments of a match someone is most likely to take a rest or score a goal, the referee most likely to book or send off Gabi or Sergio Ramos. Indeed, which man in black is most likely to adore the Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith movie franchise.

Players will point out that, by the time they’ve studied video packages prepared for them prior to a big match, they can be just as familiar with a rival from Italy or England as if they were playing a regular rival from La Liga.

Most footballers train with a GPS system included in a club vest so that raw data is fed back to a football-NASA squad of technicians, tacticians, doctors, butchers, bakers and candle-stick makers.

It’s a long, long time since Barcelona, for example, began to use a red-amber-green system of analytics which suggests, via the old traffic light concept, whether one of their high-performance athletes is or isn’t in ideal shape — injury or wellness — to train fully.

As for you and I, mere spectators, we’ll be subjected to a mass of data over the next 24 hours as Madrid, the holders, and Atletico, the eternal bridesmaids, prepare to play the first leg of their last-four tie at the Bernabeu.

How many times they’ve met in Europe (seven), how many times Madrid have won this derbi at home in the last nine meetings (twice), how many goals Cristiano Ronaldo is ahead of Lionel Messi in the all-time Champions League standings (six) will all be covered, as will the number of countries watching, how much money is at stake, the odds for either side to win and which star player will score the decisive goal.

How funny it is, then, that you can scrunch up most of that and throw it away, when compared to the two oldest components in any sporting contest.

Talent and psychology.

There is always more to great sporting drama than simply what happens on the pitch and I was one of those, who was delighted to see another two chapters of Los Blancos vs. Simeone and Co., rather than hoping against hope it would be the final again.

The psychology of this particular tie is complex.

Simeone ended 14 years of pain and humiliation, in which Atleti simply could not beat their city rivals. Madrid lorded it and won in every conceivable manner, from dominant and stylish to gritty, lucky and helped by the referee. Literally any way that you could imagine. For nearly a decade and a half.

The latest head-to-head between Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid is set to be a tight, tense encounter

Then came that utterly remarkable Copa del Rey final of 2013, when Atletico had to play at the Bernabeu and gifted the opening goal to Cristiano Ronaldo.

That should have been spiritually and psychologically crushing but, instead, it felt like the Simeone factor came into play. Atletico were robust, daring and didn’t change one iota of their game plan. Gabi ran about, committing “streetwise” challenge after “streetwise” challenge — yes, it’s a euphemism — until Ronaldo retaliated and was sent off.

The two goals Atletico scored were superb in their way and the hoodoo was ended. Moreover, as well as securing silverware, what that win unleashed was a tidal wave of self-belief. Atletico not only stood tall, with a pillar of faith inside them again, but they were able to cope with the occasional defeat to Madrid, then get back on the horse and start winning again.

It has been remarkable. If, ahead of that final, you had suggested Madrid would win just two of their next nine home games against Atletico, it would have been unthinkable.

Yet, despite all that, Atletico must be considered as starting this semifinal with a psychological disadvantage, something far graver than having to shuffle things at right-back. (Which will likely be to pair Lucas Hernandez and Diego Godin at centre-back and use Stefan Savic outside them, where Sime Vrsaljko or Juanfran would have ordinarily played.)

One of the things that Simeone has radiated to his players, since taking over two days before Christmas in 2011, is a “winning mentality.” Intensity, details, attitude, confidence, physical fitness, clear-mindedness, resolute temperament: All of these things have been part of the daily diet at the Majadahonda training ground.

However, before and after the Champions League final defeat to Madrid in Milan last May, he radiated little scintillas of doubt, nerves, superstition. And his players picked up on it.

I believe that, until this week, Atletico have felt about Madrid like Butch and Sundance — in the movie, at least — felt about the Pinkerton Posse: Always on their ankles, always able to follow and threaten them and impossible to shake off.

“Who are those guys?” Paul Newman and Robert Redford ask each other incredulously, and then increasingly anxiously.

For Butch and Sundance, read Simeone, Griezmann, Gabi and Koke. For the Posse, read Zidane, Ronaldo, Ramos and Marcelo.

Meeting at this stage gifted Simeone a significant positive, because the prospect of another “all or nothing” match, if both sides reached the final in Cardiff, would have been a major disadvantage to Atletico. Here, they have two shots at dislodging Madrid’s grip on the trophy, and it begins away from home.

People at the top end of the game increasingly dislike the power of the away goal in a second leg, but the fact remains that, in recent years, Atletico have performed better at the Bernabeu than in the last two finals. Meanwhile, the Vicente Calderon remains a not inconsiderable advantage to have up their sleeve for next week’s second leg.

Simeone’s task is to radiate this feeling. There’s a quality gap between the sides, in Madrid’s favour, and there’s a “get the job done” gap between the two clubs, also in Madrid’s favour. Therefore, beyond the blizzard of numbers and computer-generated info systems, Atletico’s boss needs to resort to the oldest trick in the book: Great man-management and great human psychology, in order to maximize the talent in his squad.

He needs to find a way to replicate what his opposite number has achieved. Zidane, once viewed as a solitary figure — the footballing Gulliver amongst Lilliputians — has proved to be a man who completely understands the group and his work on this Pinkerton Posse in white has been little short of spectacular.

Madrid believe that they’ll get a chance if they are on the bench and they believe that they’ll score or make a goal. They believe that they’ll win. They believe that, if they are losing, they’ll fight back. They believe that this trophy is theirs, again.

They. Just. Believe.

Unless Atletico find a belief as strong, as unifying and as unwavering, then the final shootout will again go the way of the Pinkertons.

Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of “Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World.” Twitter: @BumperGraham.

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