The 59th season of Europe’s most prestigious club football tournament has once again produced memorable matches and top quality performances that is fitting of the special occasion. High drama, excitement and tension have epitomised the 2013/2014 Champions League, with so many twists and turns throughout each stage creating wonderful action for a global audience to savour.
The Reigning champions Bayern Munich were unable to repeat the feats of 1975 and 1976 where they successfully defended their title, as they were resoundingly knocked out at the semi-final stage by Real Madrid who will feature in their 13th Champions League Final. The most successful club in tournament history will face arch rivals Atletico Madrid at the Estadio de Luiz in Portugal on May 24th in the Final that will feature teams from the same city for the first time.
Atletico Madrid will likely head into the Final in Benfica on May 24th as slight underdogs in the eyes of many bookmakers, fans and media pundits, but it is a position they have become accustomed to and have thrived upon this season. 2013/2014 has been a wonderful season under the guidance of Diego Simeone who has brought the great times back to Atletico who are on the brink of a memorable double that nobody had ever expected. The red half of Madrid have been outstanding throughout their La Liga campaign, standing toe-to-toe with Barcelona and Real Madrid, and have hit the summit at just the right time. The league title is poised to go down to the wire as Atletico Madrid travel to the Nou Camp to play Barcelona in a ‘winner takes all’ classic; with three points separating the sides, Barcelona must win in order to snatch the La Liga title away from Atletico on the count they have scored more goals.
While history would suggest that Real Madrid will overcome their city rivals, Atletico Madrid have begun to turn the tide in recent seasons, and may argue they hold the upper hand and momentum leading up to the Final. Atletico Madrid swept Chelsea aside in consummate fashion at Stamford Bridge in their Semi-Final second leg where they proved they have the resolve and quality to be considered amongst the elite clubs in European football. Atletico have played wonderful football throughout the season under Diego Simeone who is building quite a reputation for himself, and could be the subject of interest from major European clubs in his services.
Their success has been built upon a strong team ethic, work rate and understanding that a successful team is based upon the collective sum of its parts. The most important quality that Atletico have developed under Simeone is an extremely strong defensive unit – an area which has let them down in the past. On-loan ‘keeper Thibault Courtois has enjoyed another outstanding season in goal, with his game coming on leaps and bounds in the knowledge that Juanfran, Miranda, Diego Godin and Felipe Luis provide a solid wall in front of him. Conceding a measly 24 goals in 36 La Liga games is testament to Atletico’s strength this season, although they can also point to the creative qualities of Arda Turan and Koke from midfielder, and the goal-scoring prowess of Diego Costa which have been crucial at the other end of the pitch. The latter has enjoyed a wonderful season in front of goal and has blossomed into a world-class striker who is attracting the attention of Chelsea and other major European clubs. Atletico have more than enough about them to upset their city rivals and win their first ever Champions League trophy to make up for the heartache of 1974 after losing to Bayern Munich in a replay at Heysel Stadium.
As the most successful club in Champions League history, Real Madrid will hope to add another title to their prestigious history in the competition to take the tally to 10. It is somewhat of a surprise to discover that Real Madrid have not reached the Final since 2002 when they beat Bayer Leverkusen at Hampden Park thanks to an inspired performance from Zinedine Zidane who, single-handedly, blew the Germans away with one of the best goals in Finals history. Beating Bayern Munich in the Semi-Finals was seen as a huge achievement for Carlo Ancelotti, but the manner in which Real Madrid demolished the German giants in their own back yard is an ominous sign that they mean business.
Their victory over Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey means Real Madrid will end the 2013/2014 season with a trophy no matter what happens in the Champions League, but it remains to be seen whether Carlo Ancelotti will keep his job if they lose to their city rivals in the Final. A surprise 1-1 draw at Valladolid effectively ended their chances of winning the La Liga title, and will increase the pressure on Ancelotti and his players to win the Champions League.
2013 Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo remains at the peak of his powers and has continued to score goals for fun, with his current total of 16 in the Champions League setting a new record; you can guarantee that the Portuguese superstar will want to add to his tally to crown another wonderful season. Gareth Bale has enjoyed a largely successful start to his Real Madrid career and could play a leading role in the Final, alongside Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria who have hit form at the right time of the season. It remains to be seen whether Diego Lopez or club legend Iker Casillas will start in goal, but Atletico Madrid may be able to exploit the temperamental weaknesses in Sergio Ramos and Pepe if the centre-backs are not on their game. Both are top defenders in their own right, but will have to be at their best to nullify the threat of Diego Costa and David Villa in what could be a battle that determines the destination of the Champions League – whether it will go to the red or white half of Madrid.