Champions League Final Preview: Why You Shouldn’t Miss European Soccer’s Super Bowl

Join more than 180 million others in 200 countries in watching Real Madrid face off against Atletico Madrid in the biggest club soccer game of the year.

The teams will meet in the 2016 UEFA Champions League Final on Saturday in Milan. The winner of this all-Madrid final will call itself European soccer’s best team and have a rightful claim to the title of the world’s best.

Overview

Real Madrid, soccer royalty, has won the Champions League (and forerunner European Cup) a record 11 times. The Spanish giant has money, power, stardust and tens of millions of fans around the world.

Atletico Madrid is based just five miles away from Real Madrid but has sat in the shadow of its crosstown rival for much of its 113-year history. Atletico Madrid lost its two previous European Cup/Champions League finals — in 1974 and 2014 — but is in the midst of one of its most glorious eras.

Atletico Madrid has beaten Real Madrid more often than not since Diego Simeone’s appointment as head coach in December 2011.

These teams met in the 2014 Champions League Final, with Real Madrid prevailing 4-1 in extra time. Real Madrid eliminated Atletico Madrid from the Champions League the following year, narrowly winning 1-0 over two legs in the quarterfinal.

The teams have played each other twice this season. They drew 1-1 in their Oct. 4 meeting in La Liga (Spain’s first division). Atletico Madrid won 1-0 on Feb. 27 on Real Madrid’s home turf in their second league encounter.

But all that was then, and this is now.

Expect another tense and hard-fought game Saturday.

The teams are playing for more than local bragging rights and the most prestigious trophy club soccer has to offer. Barcelona won Spain’s league and cup this season, and history will define Real Madrid’s and Atletico Madrid’s 2015-16 seasons as successful or failed, depending on the outcome of Saturday’s game.

Coaches

Simeone played for Atletico Madrid between 1994 and 1997 but has made a bigger impact on the club as coach. He transformed Atletico Madrid into a winner, claiming five major trophies in four-and-a-half seasons. This will be Simeone’s second Champions League final as a coach. He can become the third non-European to preside over a Champions League winner, joining the company of Luis Carniglia (Real Madrid in 1957) and Helenio Herrera (Inter Milan in 1964 and 1965). Like Simeone, both Carniglia and Herrera were from Argentina.

Zinedine Zidane became a Real Madrid legend as a player between 2001 and 2006. The Frenchman retired in 2006 but remained with the club in various roles. He replaced Rafa Benitez as head coach in January and improved Real Madrid’s morale, results and performances. Zidane won the Champions League as a player in 2002 and as an assistant coach in 2014. He can join Guus Hiddink (PSV in 1988) and Pep Guardiola (Barcelona in 2009) among the ranks of coaches who lifted the European Cup in their first season as a head coach.

Venue

AC Milan and Inter Milan call the San Siro home, but the 80,000-seat stadium Saturday will belong to Madrid and the world Saturday.

Prediction: The bookmakers pit Real Madrid as the slight favorite, but Atletico Madrid will defy the odds.

Simeone has instilled a winning mentality and a well-defined style of play into his team, and Saturday’s game will be the culmination of an era of work. We don’t expect him to repeat mistakes he made in 2014 — relying on half-fit players like Diego Costa and Arda Turan — this time around.

Real Madrid is a work in progress under Zidane. Its players are rated more highly than Atletico Madrid’s on an individual basis, but Simeone’s group works better as a collective.

The two-week break between the last La Liga game and the Champions League final likely will benefit Atletico Madrid more than Real Madrid. Simeone’s fiery intensity ensures Atletico Madrid will have made the most of its preparation period. Zidane possesses an icy determination, but his calm demeanor could have allowed his players’ focus to dip, even if only for a moment.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s status could loom large. The Real Madrid superstar had an injury scare this week and has battled thigh problems in recent months. He said he’ll be fine Saturday, but his team could suffer if he’s physically less than 100 percent.

Thumbnail photo via YouTube/UEFA.tv

Thumbnail photo via Real Madrid faces Atletico Madrid in the 2016 UEFA Champions League Final; a rematch of the 2014 final.

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