TONIGHT’S Champions League final at Lisbon’s Stadium of Light is going to be a very special one for Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo who will be making a rare club appearance in his homeland.
The 29-year-old Portuguese national captain, who has scored a season-record 16 goals in the competition, is delighted to be facing Atletico Madrid in his own capital city where he began his professional career with Sporting.
He has praised world record signing Gareth Bale and team-mate Karim Benzema for taking Real to within 90 minutes of their long sought decima, their tenth European Cup crown. Ronaldo said the relationship among the three men, so crucial to Real’s attacking potency, is excellent.
“The connection we have is nearly perfect,” he said. “Karim and Gareth are excellent players and both are enjoying good spells. I’m happy to be playing alongside them. Things are going well and that’s important for the club.”
There was huge media speculation that Ronaldo would not take kindly to Bale’s arrival in Madrid last year. The £86 million Real paid to Tottenham Hotspur set a new world transfer record, breaking the previous mark of £80m they paid to Manchester United for Ronaldo in 2009.
That, however, was never the case and Ronaldo has plenty of praise for the Welshman who has scored 20 goals for Real this season – 15 in La Liga and five in the Champions League.
Ronaldo said he made an immediate connection with the devastatingly quick midfielder, who has settled well in Madrid after a slow start.
“Of course Gareth speaks English. Not all of the players here do, but I do. So we have a good connection. We have become close. I like him as a player and I like him even more as a person. As a player, it doesn’t need saying, but he’s also a very calm person.”
Ronaldo has scored 50 goals in all matches for Real this season and his 16 strikes in the Champions League broke the previous record of 14 shared by Jose Altafini of AC Milan and Lionel Messi of Barcelona. He is also third on the all-time European Cup/Champions League scoring chart with 66 goals behind Raul (71) and Messi (67) but is now focused on helping Real lift the European Cup for the tenth time.
“It will be special at Benfica’s ground,” said the player developed at Benfica’s rivals Sporting before moving to United as an 18-year-old. “It’s a legendary stadium for everyone in Portugal and for me. It’s in my country, and I am very happy for that. Perhaps they won’t be supporting Real Madrid, but that’s fine.”
The final could also turn out to be a special night for Real goalkeeper Iker Casillas who is on the verge of turning one of the most trying seasons of his career into one of the most successful.
Casillas lost his starting position under former coach Jose Mourinho last season, and the arrival of Carlo Ancelotti changed little with the Italian preferring Diego Lopez for league duties. But Casillas was handed his chance in the Champions League and Copa del Rey games, and he captained Real to the domestic cup title. A victory tonight against Atletico would secure a double, something the 33-year-old Casillas has never managed in 14 seasons at the club.
“It’s been a different Champions League campaign, for sure,” said Casillas, who set a Spanish record of 952 minutes without conceding a goal in any competition this season. “It hasn’t been easy having to play games with such a pause between.”
Casillas is the only player remaining from the Real team that won the Champions League in 2000 and 2002. “Twelve years ago, I had a different attitude, that of a young kid. I was only 20. Twelve years later the situation is different from then,” said Casillas, who recently became a father for the first time. “A lot of time has passed, a lot of games.”
With Champions League games only every few weeks and no cup games until December, Casillas endured a frustrating start to the season, including speculation over his future. However, he doesn’t sound like he’s ready to leave.
“I hope I have a lot of games left to play,” said Casillas, who has never lost to Atletico. “I want to be here competing next season and hopefully to fight for the Champions League.”
Simeone insists injuries won’t derail Atletico’s bid for historic win over rivals
Diego Simeone is convinced Atletico Madrid can cap a spectacular run of achievements by beating city rivals Real Madrid in tonight’s Champions League final.
The 44-year-old head coach insists Atletico can triumph even if star striker Diego Costa is ruled out of the Lisbon showpiece by injury.
Atletico fans fear that Costa, who has been strongly linked with a summer move to Chelsea, may have played his last match for their side.
But the club have been battling to help him overcome the hamstring problem that makes him a major doubt, going to such lengths as to put him through a course of treatment that involves horse placenta.
He trained yesterday evening, giving hope to those who felt he had little chance of being involved.
Costa’s setback came during the draw at Barcelona that clinched the Spanish Primera Division title for Atletico, the greatest success yet of Simeone’s reign but one that could be topped tonight.
“We’ll examine him but we have other injury doubts too,” said Argentinian Simeone. “They trained better yesterday but we’ll wait and see.”
Turkish midfielder Arda Turan was also hurt in the Nou Camp game, but appears more likely to make the starting line-up than Costa.
“Costa and Arda are important players but they’re just names,” Simeone added. “It will either be them playing or two other players that we know.”
Such is the ethos of Atletico, who lack the ‘Galacticos’ their city rivals enjoy parading but can point to a spirit in the camp that appears unmatched towards the top end of European football. This is underlined by the players’ unflinching confidence in their coach. “We believe in Simeone,” said captain Gabi. “For me he is the best. He has helped us to win, we are all here to win.”
Simeone was appointed to lead a struggling Atletico on 23 December, 2011 and his return to the club where he had two playing spells has brought more long-lasting joy than even the most optimistic supporter could hardly have imagined. Of the 13 players who featured in his first game as Atletico boss, a goalless draw against Malaga on 7 January, 2012, nine remain in Simeone’s current squad, along with a trio of the unused substitutes from that day. Theirs is a success that has been hard-earned, not bought in.
Of those who have left, Atletico had their hand forced by the big money
of Monaco when selling Radamel Falcao last summer for a fee close to £50 million. Falcao was a talisman of last season’s team and his departure looked set to make 2013-14 a testing one for Atletico. They acquired David Villa as a replacement for a knock-down fee from Barcelona, with Spain’s record scorer widely portrayed as a Nou Camp cast-off. Yet Villa and Atletico were adamant they would not be bit-part players in the Spanish season, and Simeone guided them to the top of the table early on and they did not squander the title opportunity. As he watched his old team-mates celebrate the championship in Barcelona, Colombian Falcao last weekend wrote on Twitter: “All the praise that can be awarded to ‘Cholo’ Simeone at this time falls short of his immense management.”
It is difficult not to be wowed by Atletico’s trophy haul in the two-and-a-half years since Simeone took over, consisting of a Europa League title, the European Super Cup, Copa del Rey and the Spanish league.
Simeone has mastered the art of managing an underdog – which, despite their myriad of achievements, is the description Atletico are being tagged with again this weekend. There can be little doubt by now it suits them.
Now Gabi is determined to lead with the assurance on the pitch that his boss demonstrates on the touchline.
The captain added: “It’s the biggest game in the history of Atletico Madrid. I’m proud to wear this shirt. We will give everything.”