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May 23, 2014

Madrid's two clubs arrive in Lisbon via very different paths

"We have won the novena and next year we will go for the decima, and then undecima and the duodecima," proclaimed Florentino Perez, Real Madrid's president. It was the key message of a victory banquet speech in Glasgow that followed Real's 2002 Champions League triumph, the occasion of Zinedine Zidane's wonderful volley to beat Bayer Leverkusen. Los Galacticos of Zidane, Luis Figo et al never repeated that glory night. There is still no 10th, let alone 11th and 12th.

Lisbon, mainland Europe's furthest western capital, is where the long-term delay can end, although Real will take to the field on Saturday with a hundredweight of history on their shoulders.

"Real Madrid have suffered these past few years," admitted Iker Casillas to the pre-match news conference. The goalkeeper is the sole playing survivor from Glasgow. "We were getting too used to it. Now, we've had to wait so long. When you are in a moment when you haven't won, you then see how important previous wins were."

"A final is always a final, there isn't much difference," said Real manager Carlo Ancelotti, coach in three previous European Cup finals and a player in three, too. "This one has something particular as we started the season thinking of this objective: to win our 10th European Cup. I think that's why it's a bit special for everyone."

Zidane is now a sharp-suited club exec while Perez is in a second spell as president that has not yet replicated the success of his first. Even someone of such limitless hubris might recognise that the 11th and 12th are not sure to follow Saturday's golden chance of the 10th. Still, no team has ever won the Champions League in consecutive years since its rebrand.

Since 2002, four semifinals have been lost, including the last three in a row. More than a billion euros has been lavished on the all-consuming mission. No club feels the pain of a European Cup exit like Real Madrid. "When you are not in the final it is hard to accept," admitted Casillas; this was their trophy, in the competition's infant years. When it was won three times around the turn of the millennium (1998, 2000 and 2002), it seemed it would be again.

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"We have tried to arrive at the final for several years but we have finally been able to do it," said Casillas.

Once this final was reached, Real could not keep their attentions on their domestic campaign. Cristiano Ronaldo's muscular difficulties were unhelpful, but in a Liga climax where all three leaders stumbled, Real faltered most. Perhaps blowing the title is a good omen; they have not won a league title and the European Cup in the same season since 1957-58 -- their third.

Greatest pressure falls on the broad shoulders of Ancelotti. Since 2002, the Italian has won two European Cups of his own. Having dealt with the megalomaniac whims of Silvio Berlusconi and Roman Abramovich, Perez is a positive pussycat. Ancelotti may well lose his job if the dream is denied, but adopted his usual sanguine, unflustered look at the news conference, even when the trademark right eyebrow was often raised. He lives in the relaxed knowledge that he can always pick up work elsewhere, even if he has gained an affection for life in Spain's capital. "I am used to it," he replied when asked about growing speculation surrounding his future.

Real also face the unthinkable humiliation of being upstaged by their smaller, poorer crosstown rivals. Fans of both clubs are piling down the 313 miles between Spain's capital and that of Portugal, with service stations designated for either Real or Atleti fans on the highway. Atleti's contingent seem more relaxed, most of all coach Diego Simeone. With a league title banked, they can afford to be. Champions League victory can make them history makers in their own way. A first would be as sweet as Real's 10th.

"It's a lovely game, it provides space for opinions, but nobody holds the ultimate truth," said Simeone, having been wreathed in praise by his own players.

"It's difficult to praise Simeone when he is here -- but he is like a God to us," said teacher's pet Tiago Mendes. "What he says came true. We follow him. If he asks us to jump from a bridge, we jump. We are very proud to have him as a coach."

Questions about the fitness of Diego Costa and Arda Turan will probably lead the Atletico agenda until an hour before kick-off, although both took part in a very light training session. Turan looked to be moving far easier than Costa, who suffered two missed attempts from two in heading practice, having made some hesitant jogs that involved plenty of flexing around his torn hamstring.

"Arda and Costa are just names," deflected Simeone when repeatedly quizzed. "They are important players within the team of course, but there are other players who will know they are playing if those two don't."

Atleti's rise is built on such a one-for-all policy while the star system must always dominate the Real narrative. "There is a special chemistry between him and his players," said an admiring Ancelotti. "That's why they won the league."

Ronaldo, the modern-day Galactico, returns to a final for the first time in five years. When he joined in 2009, La Decima was the target. He too has been made to wait but returns to the city where he began his football life with his coach suggesting there should be no worry over Ronaldo's fitness after a season where he has smashed more records. "We need Ronaldo," said Ancelotti. "He has played a fantastic Champions League season, scoring 16 goals, and has helped the team to reach this final."

And this final is special. "The line is very close between obsession and dream," said Ancelotti of La Decima, the unavoidable subject. "I think it is a dream and we will try to reach the dream."