Diego Simeone's magic touch keeps Atletico Madrid in contention
Diego Simeone, as ever, assertively set the tone. Once Real Madrid had confirmed they would again be Atletico Madrid's opponents in the Champions League final in Milan, the Argentine was naturally asked what it meant, and how the 4-1 defeat at the same stage in 2014 would affect things.
"It's not revenge," Simeone responded. "It's a new opportunity."
The Atletico manager is obviously trying to reframe the game in his players' minds so they don't self-damagingly get obsessed with Real rather than doing their jobs, but that wasn't just psychological management. It was also someway true. For the majority of Simeone's squad, this is a new opportunity. From that final in Lisbon in 2014, only six of the 18-man match-day squad remain. It is a remarkable turnover in the space of two years.
It also emphasises that Simeone is not just defying the economic realities of the modern game in again getting Atletico to the final. He is also defying the most damaging effects of those economic realities.
It is astounding that Atletico have sustained the same intense level of performance despite so many sales. Selling influential players has cost so many teams like them, and has been so thoroughly depressing in the past decade. Any time someone outside the top few super-clubs has done anything of note, they have immediately been stripped of their best players to leave them a worse side.
It has happened time and again, and now at a more accelerated rate than ever before in football history. The clearest example is Borussia Dortmund, who reached the final in 2013. From the 2011 sale of Nuri Sahin to Real Madrid, they had at least one player taken off their core every summer until it left even Jurgen Klopp ineffective. He departed the club in 2015, having tried everything possible to work around the exits of the likes of Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski.
The key problem was that, every time they had to sell, they were losing a player who perfectly understood the side's approach, and then had to wait until the replacement was fully integrated. The side's flow was disrupted and there were no guarantees the new signing would successfully adapt. It's also statistically impossible to get every such transfer right.
So, really, every exit hastened the gradual erosion of the side. There are many previous finalists who will recognise such a deflating process: Stade Reims 1956, Partizan Belgrade 1967, Nottingham Forest 1979-80, Steaua Bucharest 1986, PSV Eindhoven 1988, Ajax 1995, Dortmund 1997 and Porto 2004. They couldn't keep fighting the tide.
Somehow, though, Atletico have done more than stay afloat. They may well rise above everyone to win the competition, and that after two years when they've lost players including Thibaut Courtois, Diego Costa, Miranda, Arda Turan (injured for the 2014 final) and David Villa.
It shouldn't have been possible, but as with so much during his time at the Vicente Calderon, Simeone has made it so.
The key has been the core qualities of the side and the same principles that have propelled their exceptional defensive record: supreme levels of motivation and the most intense organisation.
He has made such a virtue of the overall team traits of rigour and resilience, that it doesn't really matter who fills the positions to the same extent, so as long as they follow orders. That explains how otherwise steady but not spectacular players including Mario Suarez, Matias Kranevitter, Augusto Fernandez and Jesus Gamez are so interchangeable. That is because they all have the same demands drilled into them, and the conditioning process is quite simple -- do them or you're dropped.
Toby Alderweireld was recently gushing about Simeone's approach in that regard to Belgian newspaper HLN.
"I learned so much at Atletico," the Tottenham defender and former Atleti man explained.
"Simeone likes to focus on every single detail. Everything is perfectly prepared for his players. During training sessions, he simulates every possible situation. It's a drill. Defence against attack. What if the left-back has moved up the pitch, what if the right-back makes this move, what if there's a long ball?
"One of those lessons that sticks: if there's a high ball, never head it down, always up. It gives your teammates more time to get around the ball."
Atletico are supreme at getting around the ball, but there is more to it than that. The ever-changing cast of players aren't quite playing the same system as in 2013-14. Simeone has evolved it, adding nuance.
"He is not wedded to any specific tactical system," Simeone's former Estudiantes defender Agustin Alayes tells ESPN FC. "He is wedded to winning. He does whatever works best."
There is also a strong argument that he has made the team better, too, defying the game's realities to an even greater degree. Atletico have more variation and dynamism in attack, aided by the thrilling pace of Antoine Griezmann.
You could say the French striker, along with perhaps Diego Godin and Koke, is one of the indispensable players. However, Simeone has already disproved similar statements about other players time and again, just like he has defied so much in the game.
It said much about this whole process that Atletico even kept a clean sheet against Bayern Munich in the semifinal without Godin. The tone had been set.
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.