Countdown to the 2015-16 Champions League Final

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Zidane V Simeone

We are now a matter of days away from the biggest game in club football – the UEFA Champions League Final – and for the second time in three years, the event will be an all-Madrid affair, as Zinedine Zidane’s Real Galacticos go head-to-head with Diego Simeone’s irrepressible Atletico. This will once again be billed as tale of stardust versus endeavour, skill versus strength and big dog versus underdog. In short, this a tale of Zidane versus Simone, and the teams that reflect everything good and bad that is these two former international players of significant renown.

Zidane: The Artist

The career of Zinedine Yazid Zidane was one of interminable glory, punctuated and ultimately curtailed early (by a manner of minutes) in notoriety. There are very few players who could lay claim to the grace, style and majesty of the French number 10 (and Real number 5), whose career highlights include a World Cup Winners medal, a European Championship Winners medal, a Champions League Winners medal, and a number of domestic league and cup triumphs. Indeed, this Ballon’Dor winner (1998, after his two goals in the final helped claim a home World Cup for France) would be a serious candidate for most observer’s all-time XI, such is ‘Zizou’s’ standing in the annals of the game. Yet this was a career that was also dotted with disciplinary issues, most notably the notorious ‘headbut’ on Marco Materazzi which culminated in Zidane receiving a red card in his final competitive match – the 2006 World Cup Final no less.  Zidane is also the joint record holder (along with Brazil’s Cafu) for cards received in FIFA’s showpiece tournament, with 6. Zidane received a total of 12 red cards during his glittering career, although the icon was late to say that 12 were a direct result of ‘provocation.’ Yet Zidane’s moments of hot-headedness were never enough to detract from his true legacy – that of an enigmatic and highly skilled artist of the game.

Simeone: The Fighter

Diego Pablo Simeone Gonzalez’s playing CV may not quite match that of Zidane, but it also makes enviable reading. In a near 20-year career, the defensive midfielder played for eight clubs spanning his native Argentina, Spain and Italy, and claimed the feat of achieving the domestic double in both Spain (with Atletico in 1995-96) and in Italy (with SS Lazio in 1999-2000). Simeone also enjoyed a notable career with his country in which he earned 106 caps (at one point surpassing Diego Maradona as his country’s most capped player), scored 11 goals, and was part of two Copa America winning sides, three World Cup squads, and the team which claimed silver at the 1996 Olympics. Simeone was often described as a tenacious midfielder, and is best-remembered in England as the player whose theatrics played a pivotal role in David Beckham being sent off during their World Cup match in 1998, although this opinion would also do injustice to a footballing ability which displayed no little technique, as well as astonishing work-rate – mirrored beautifully in his Atletico team. The man himself once described his style as “holding a knife between his teeth,” and it is this level of commitment and skill that has transferred into the coaching arena.

Zidane and Simeone: The Coaches

Whereas Zidane may have the advantage in the playing stakes, it is Simeone whose coaching stock could barely be higher at this relatively early stage in his career on the other side of the line. Simeone claimed domestic league titles with unfancied Estudiantes, leading the club to their first championship in 23 years, and River Plate in his homeland, before being unveiled as Atletico’s new coach in December 2011, and it is at the Vicente Calderon where his coaching reputation has truly been forged, leading the Rojiblncos to the La Liga title in 2014-15, as well as the Copa Del Rey (2012-13), the Europa League (2011-12), and of course the final of the Champions League in 2013-14, when Atletico were moments away from a famous victory – their first in Europe’s premier club competition.

The Champions League Final 2013-14

That match, at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon, was the first time in Champions League (or European Cup) history that two teams from the same city had reached the final. Real, who had defeated defending champions Bayern Munich in the semi-final, were led by Carlo Ancelotti, while Simeone was leading the Rojiblancos into their first final since 1974 in only his second full season in charge at the Vicente Calderon. An understandably cagey affair was seemingly destined to be settled by Diego Godin’s first half goal, until Sergo Ramos’ late intervention, in the 93rd minute to be precise, forced the game into extra time. In those additional thirty minutes, Real pulled away with goals form Gareth Bale, Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo settling the tie in Los Blancos’ favour. To further rub salt into the wounds, Simeone was sent from the dugout in the 123rd minute after an altercation with Real’s Raphael Varane. This was a heart-breaking defeat for Atleti coach and his men, who were a matter of moments away from glory, and a chance at redemption became the obsession for the Argentine. Zidane? The Frenchman took his place on the bench as assistant to Ancelotti that day, and was still yet to take on his first head coaching role, which was to follow at Real Madrid Castilla (the Real ‘B’ team) that summer.

Redemption for Simeone?

Fast forward two years, and in Milan on Saturday night, the two teams from Madrid will meet again to decide the destiny of the 2015-16 Champions League trophy. Simeone continues to lead Atletico with distinction, whilst Ancelotti is long gone from the Real hot seat, replaced initially by Rafael Benitez, who was himself sacked and replaced by Zidane in January 2016. And here the legend is, less than six months into the job and leading his side out in a Champions League final against city rivals Atleti. Simeone will hope that his superior coaching experience, battling qualities and thirst for revenge will lead his men to redemption in Saturday’s final. Zidane, as was so often the case in an almost peerless playing career, will hope to taste glory once again. In their only meeting to date as coaches, Simeone’s Atleti claimed the honours at the Santiago Bernabeu back in February, a result which seemed to all but end  Real’s title hopes, and scupper Zizou’s impressive start at the helm. The world waits to see who will claim the revenge they seek in Saturday’s showpiece.


To Win

Real Madrid – 2.40

Draw – 3.10

Atletico Madrid – 3.20

All odds courtesy of Bet365 and correct as of 20.00 GMT on 24/05/16

Steve Paget