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May 22, 2014

Sizing up the Real vs. Atletico tactical battles

Big clubs have a nasty habit of ruining their little city rival's celebrations.

When Everton finished above Liverpool for the first time in years back in 2005, beating them to the final Champions League spot, the Reds went out and won the European Cup. When Manchester City's 35-year wait for a major trophy ended with their 2011 FA Cup final win, Manchester United clinched the Premier League title on the same day.

But a Real Madrid European Cup victory would be the cheekiest upstaging of them all -- a direct defeat of Atletico one week after Diego Simeone's side recorded the most remarkable title victory in years. Here's a lowdown on the tactical battle ahead of Saturday night's clash.

Real Madrid

Approach: In the semi-final destruction of holders Bayern Munich, Real Madrid played almost purely on the break. They were accustomed to playing against Pep Guardiola's preferred style of football from various clasicos: a possession-based approach that leaves spaces at the back. Real's performance in the second leg was one of the most ruthless examples of counter-attacking you'll ever see.

The same type of performance won't be entirely appropriate against Atletico Madrid, a side who won La Liga despite averaging less than 50 percent of possession: an astonishing statistic. This will be a more patient contest and while Atletico throw players forward into attack, they're excellent at defensive transitions, delaying opposition counters and getting back into position quickly. Real will need to be more proactive in their rough 4-4-2 shape.

Selection: There's only one genuine selection dilemma for Ancelotti -- who should replace the suspended Xabi Alonso? It seems a straight fight between Asier Illarramendi and Sami Khedira; the latter seems more likely. He brings more tenacity and mobility, vital for playing against Atletico. Though the German midfielder hasn't played many games after a long period out injured, Ancelotti says that his knee has recovered perfectly and he simply lacks match sharpness. Khedira should start, but he might not last 90 -- or 120 -- minutes.

Strength: Real boast the two most expensive players in the history of football, so there's little doubt about their area of strength. Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale are devastating when breaking forward at speed and when Real get counter-attacking opportunities, they'll transfer the ball to this duo as quickly as possible.

They're likely to play different roles -- Bale tucked into a midfield quartet starting on the right, with Ronaldo playing a left-of-centre forward role, essentially in a 4-4-2. Ronaldo is more likely to provide the finishing touches but Bale might lead the transitions, with Angel Di Maria also superb at moving out of defence with the ball.

Weakness: The obvious answer here is the absence of Alonso, but it's not unrealistic to suggest that Real might be boosted by his unavailability, assuming Khedira is fit to start. Real's usual weakness is their lack of bite in the centre of midfield -- Alonso and Modric are a wonderfully technically proficient duo and have positioned themselves brilliantly this season, but weren't always the best at scrapping -- and you need to do that against Atletico.

Instead, perhaps the problem will be left-back Marcelo. In Atletico's quarter-final victory over Barcelona, they constantly thumped long balls forward to Raul Garcia on the right, who towered above Jordi Alba and created chances with his head. Simeone might look to expose Marcelo, only five-foot-seven, similarly.

Atletico Madrid

Approach: Diego Simeone's side are excellent at winning possession but the key is precisely how, and where, they attempt to win it. Although Atletico have generally sat in their own half before suddenly springing an intense midfield press, they're also capable of pressing higher up when required, and might use a more energetic approach in the opening stages -- the same way Dortmund's pressing meant they dominated the start of the European Cup final at Wembley last year.

Regardless of where they win possession, Atletico will break extremely quickly with clever, neat passing combinations transferring the ball into attack quickly. The key players will be Koke and (if fit) Arda Turan -- both are excellent at darting past their direct opponent and using the ball swiftly in the opposition half. Real's centre-backs must remain switched on at all times and be ready to move out towards the channels.

Selection: Simeone is waiting on the fitness of two star players who both limped off at the Camp Nou last weekend. Diego Costa and Arda Turan will surely start if anywhere near fit -- if not, Adrian Lopez and Garcia would be the obvious replacements, although it's not unthinkable that Diego Ribas could be fielded behind David Villa (or even Adrian) as a number ten, testing Real in that zone between the lines where they lack a traditional holding midfielder.

Costa and Turan would be significant absences. However, even when they were substituted against Barcelona last weekend, Atletico ended up with the XI that had beaten the Catalan club in the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final. While Atletico's 18-man squad isn't the most impressive in terms of depth, they can cope with a couple of absences. The defensive quartet, and the midfield duo, will remain unchanged.

Strength: If they're without both Costa and Turan, Atletico might find their best opportunities come from set-pieces. They'll have to be extremely careful about how many men they commit forward, considering that Real's counter-attacking can be at its most lethal in these situations, but as Diego Godin's header at the Camp Nou last weekend demonstrated, Atletico can prosper from dead ball situations.

Don't rule out clever training ground moves, either; Atletico have continually passed some clever free-kicks around the wall to manufacture great scoring opportunities from close-range situations. If Real commit fouls in dangerous positions, they may be punished.

Weakness: If Costa doesn't make it, Atletico may struggle for goals from open play. The Brazilian-turned-Spaniard netted 35 percent of Atletico's goals in La Liga this season, and there would be a huge responsibility on Villa's shoulders to compensate.

Unfortunately, Villa isn't the lethal finisher of old, has lost some of his pace and hasn't scored in his last 14 appearances. Probable strike partner Adrian has managed just three goals all season. Atletico should have battered Barcelona in the quarter-final -- they might have been 4-0 up by half-time -- but instead scored just one goal and were hanging on at the end. One goal might do it in Lisbon, but will they get it?

Key battle: Luka Modric vs. Gabi

With no Alonso, Modric will be charged with starting Real's attacks from the centre of midfield and more than any other player on the pitch, he's a potential tempo-setter. If Gabi can push up and close him down, preventing him from turning, Atletico will find themselves on top. If Modric can skip past the challenges with ease, however, Real should have plenty of chances to attack.

In a purely technical sense he hasn't been Atletico Madrid's best performer this season, but Gabi epitomises everything about Simeone's side. His hunger, work rate, tackling skills and his refusal to be overawed by superior footballers means that he's a consistent source of inspiration for his teammates. One more great performance and Atletico can clinch an improbable double.