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May 27, 2014

UCL final result affects future of Ancelotti and Simeone

It started slow, it ended with drama and history being made. But now that the 2013-14 Champions League is in the books, what happens next?

That's the thing about this game. There's always next year.

But while some clubs have the luxury of an appeal, seemingly every season, others, have the tiniest window of opportunity. Blink, fail to carpe diem and you may wait decades (or longer) for the next bus to come your way.

With the cash flowing into the game increasingly going ever more disproportionately towards the top end of the food chain (and Financial Fair Play won't help here, on the contrary) the impression is we won't see Atletico Madrid at this level for some time. And, equally, you expect Real to reload and come back even stronger.

Then again, there's more here than meets the eye. Here's a rundown of how things might pan out.

Real Madrid

The joke among club officials -- according to Diego Torres writing in El Pais -- is that Carlo Ancelotti was like a cat, blessed with nine lives (Well, seven, because that's how many Spanish felines have). He kept coming back.

Lose to Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the first Clasico? They reel off 31 unbeaten games in a row, including 26 wins.

Squander a three point lead in La Liga with back-to-back defeats? They bounce back with that 3-0 pasting of Borussia Dortmund.

Fall in the return leg to Dortmund, raising questions as to whether the first leg was a fluke? No sweat. They beat Barca in the Copa del Rey final and then hammer Bayern 5-0 on aggregate.

Limp to the end of La Liga with one win in the last four? And there's the comeback to seal "La Decima" in Lisbon.

It seems crazy that a single event -- Sergio Ramos' header -- should determine Ancelotti's job security, but that's football. Having worked under the likes of Luciano Moggi (Juventus), Silvio Berlusconi (AC Milan), Roman Abramovich (Chelsea) and Nasser Al-Khelaifi (PSG), he's better equipped than most to handle the whispers, pressure and politics of a job like that of Real Madrid manager.

But without La Decima, he would have been more vulnerable. That much is obvious. The newfound harmony in the dressing room, the avoidance of perpetual controversy and sniping at opponents, the excellent relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo (a factor of outsized importance at the Bernabeu)... all of this would have been secondary had he failed in the final.

This doesn't mean Florentino Perez would have immediately wielded the axe -- far from it -- but it does mean an early wobble next season could have cost him dear. Now he has more wiggle room and more influence to implement his ideas and his will.

In terms of the playing squad, the way the club have been aggressively shopping Alvaro Morata around suggests another centerforward is on his way. Morata is out of contract a year from now, but then so is Karim Benzema. The difference between the two is that the former has more of a market. Either way, expect a long transfer saga as Madrid chase a blue-chip central striker.

Xabi Alonso turns 33 in November and, as we saw on Saturday, he's integral to what Ancelotti is trying to do. Asier Illaramendi was supposed to be the heir apparent, but he didn't progress as quickly as hoped this season, while Sami Khedira, slowed by injury, remains a question mark. The tough call will be determining whether either is capable of stepping up.

At the back, Pepe is 31 and slowing down and, while Raphael Varane is a genuine talent, he's also been beset by injuries (24 league starts over the past two years tell their own story). Another option at center back might make sense. Then there's Iker Casillas, possibly the trickiest call of all: another season of part-time duty seems unthinkable but what do you do with a resident legend? Do you put your faith in him (and shift Diego Lopez, who is too good to be a No. 2)? Or do you make the most painful -- and potentially risky -- of decisions?

Either way, Madrid will spend money. And, likely, come back stronger. Jese, Isco and Illaramendi will have one more year's experience under their belts. The Bale-Ronaldo balance will be fine-tuned. Going from nine to ten took 12 years. The step to eleven seem shorter.

Atletico Madrid

What strikes you immediately is that the core of this team has been together for a long time. Twelve of the 13 most used players this past season joined the club before Simeone's arrival: the exception being David Villa.

This suggests two things. The first is that the cohesion and unity that Atleti displayed this season wasn't accidental, but was likely built over time. The other is that Simeone and his assistants -- Oscar Ortega and German "El Mono" Burgos -- have above all done their work on the training pitch: making existing players better rather than simply getting the club to buy them new ones.

That ability to coach and get players to progress is invaluable and a rare skill in the modern game, where many of the more successful managers seem to focus primarily on acquiring and "managing" ready-made stars.

Simeone stock is at an all-time high right now, but you get the sense a move elsewhere is not imminent. At the very highest level, there are no job openings right now. There may be opportunities the next step down -- but still with heftier budgets than Atletico -- at Milan, Tottenham or Monaco. But the first two won't have Champions' League football next year and, in any case, appear to be looking elsewhere.

At Monaco he'd have an enormous budget (provided Dmitry Rybolovlev perseveres in his determination to ignore Financial Fair Play) and, given that his agent already has half a dozen clients at the club, it would be an easy move. It would also be distinctly unromantic and rather depressing.

If he stays, he knows what he'll face. Atletico will sell. Diego Costa will join Radamel Falcao, Sergio Aguero, Diego Forlan and Fernando Torres in the long line of Atleti strikers sold for big money: that's what happens when your debt exceeds half a billion dollars.

Thibaut Courtois, equally, is out of the club's hands. He's a Chelsea player, should Jose Mourinho decide that Petr Cech's time is up, Atleti will have to search for a new goalkeeper.

Yet beyond those two (admittedly huge) potential defections, you don't really see Atletico's squad being raided. Koke is the other, obvious, salable asset, but the club would be better off hanging on to him and letting his value rise. Miranda, Filipe Luis and Diego Godin are all 28 or older and locked into long-term deals: depending on the Costa fee, there will be no great imperative to sell.

With gifted youngsters like midfielders Oliver Torres and, especially, Saul likely to return from loan stints elsewhere, Simeone will get two instant reinforcements with a huge upside (particularly Saul).

On paper, apart from replacing Costa and -- probably -- Courtois there isn't much else they need. True, it's a big ask, but between the Spanish international's fee (which should be close to $50m) and the Champions League prize money (which is to be confirmed, but should be north of $70m) they'll have enough to address those needs, even when you take out the usual chunk to service their huge debt.

In fact, the main question mark for next year might not be down to the players as much as it is down to Simeone and whether he can coax the same level of performance out of them. Raul Garcia notched 17 goals (many off the bench), Gabi was in beast mode, Godin and Miranda were as effective as any centre back pairing in Europe (and, between them, scored 12 goals, many of them key).

It's an oft-repeated trope that, after a while, a manager needs to change his methods (or change his players) because it's tough to rekindle the same motivation year after year. After a while, the same words no longer have the same effect. That may be true. But you wonder if Simeone might be the exception. After all, most of his crew have been hearing the same stuff for the past two and a half years and they've shown no sign of slowing down.

Atletico will have to rebuild in ways that Real Madrid won't. That's the nature of the beast. Repeating the 2013-14 campaign is a remote possibility. But so too is a vertical collapse. In fact, the more you look at it, the more it makes sense for Simeone to stick around.

Those who know the game know that another strong season next year -- read, a top three finish and a run in Europe -- will be in some ways even more impressive than what was just achieved.