It is the great paradox of Real Madrid’s recent history that their most glittering triumph came against the one team who have caused them more pain than any other of late. Los Blancos had to bide their time to claim La Decima, but against their city rivals Atletico Madrid two years ago, it finally arrived.
Real Madrid have certainly paid for that success since then. The Santiago Bernabeu side have not beaten Atletico Madrid in La Liga, going six matches without a win. Diego Simeone’s team might have lost out in Lisbon, but they have the Galacticos’ number. They, more than any other team, know how to the get the better of Real Madrid.
Of course, Carlo Ancelotti’s side were only a matter of seconds from suffering an altogether different fate, with Sergio Ramos heading home a stoppage-time equalizer to force extra time. It was one of the great Champions League finals of modern times, and now the two clubs will once again do battle on the same stage.
Whilst the Clasico will forever be Spanish soccer’s defining fixture, the Madrid derby has become a compelling contest in its own right in recent years. Simeone has completely overhauled the dynamic of the rivalry between the two clubs. The inferiority complex that once saw Atleti go 14 years without a win over Real has been flipped on its head by the Argentine.
On Tuesday evening, Simeone’s side contested a stark contrast of styles, with the conservative and defensive Atletico seeing off the expansive and dynamic Bayern Munich on away goals. Against Pep Guardiola’s team, Atletico Madrid underlined what makes them so dangerous as an outfit. Their energy, drive and sheer philosophical belief makes them the most difficult side in Europe to beat.
That is where Atletico thrive, against teams who go directly against the grain of their own identity, like Real Madrid. In Milan, Simeone will come up against yet another side intent on attacking at every possible opportunity. At the Bernabeu, only gung-ho soccer is tolerated and in Zinedine Zidane they have a coach comfortable with embracing that demand, unlike Rafael Benitez. That will suit Atletico Madrid just fine.
Both clubs have been presented with the chance to salvage what looked like ailing seasons not so long ago. Even after the dismissal of Benitez, Real Madrid seemed to be in something of a downward spiral, falling as far as 12 points behind Barcelona in the Liga table at one point. That gap has now closed to just a single point, with Los Blancos also outlasting their Catalan rivals in the Champions League.
Atletico Madrid have surged to the fore, too. They also find themselves in the midst of a title race against a Barcelona side seemingly determined to throw away their lead, but their run has been more sustained than that of their city rivals. Whilst Real Madrid have been erratic all season long, Atletico have been their consistent counter balance. They have always been there. They’re always there, even when they shouldn’t be.
Simeone’s side won’t be able to match Real Madrid in next month’s final for quality or resources, but therein lies the genius of the Argentine coach. He perpetually finds a way to bridge the gap, like he did against Bayern Munich and like he does against Real Madrid time and time again. Atletico always find a way - or rather, their coach always finds a way.
"I hope that destiny will help us this time too,” Simeone said after Tuesday’s aggregate win in Bavaria. “We've shown continually that we can beat the best clubs in the world and over the course of this tie we have shown how well we've done to reach this stage. I hope that destiny will eventually help us in the final.”
Simeone is well aware, however, that more than destiny is needed to see Atletico Madrid past Real Madrid. He’ll already be working on a plan to ensure the result in 2013’s Champions League final remains little more than a mere anomaly.