Atletico’s 3-1 victory at Chelsea saw them progress to their first European Cup final in 40 years, where the most successful club in the tournament’s history, Real Madrid, await after crushing 2013 winners Bayern Munich 5-0 over two legs.
Atletico are on the verge of an historic double as they close in on their first Spanish league title in 18 years, while Real are chasing a treble after winning the Copa del Rey against Barcelona.
The feat is all the more impressive for Atletico, who under coach Diego Simeone have completely turned from a club with a history for underachieving and late collapses into genuine European heavyweights.
“Atletico is a real team,” Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho admitted after Wednesday’s defeat. “It knows how to be strong in defence and when to come out and attack. It’s a great team.”
One year after an all-German Champions League final, the continent’s top competition now has its first ever final between clubs from the same city.
“I’m happy that it’s an all-Spanish final,” Atletico playmaker Koke said of the 24 May date in Lisbon. “It’s going to be a special day, a very nice day because all of Madrid will be in Lisbon.”
The final will also highlight the teams’ different philosophies and history.
Atletico’s blue-collar base is far removed from Real’s home in the north-west Chamartin area with its leafy avenues, luxury homes, and expensive cars.
Madrid are the record 32-time Spanish champion with nine European Cups and a payroll of €500 billion that includes Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo and world-record €100bn signing Gareth Bale.
Atletico’s payroll equates to ne-fifth that of Real Madrid or Barcelona, and they are a club with a history of money troubles.
Yet Simeone, who was in the Atletico team that won the league and cup double in 1996, has nurtured a winning culture from a squad that has changed little since his arrival more than two years ago, and despite the sale of star striker Radamel Falcao in the close season.
“It’s crazy to think we’re in the Champions League final,” Atletico midfielder Tiago Mendes said. “But this team deserves it after everything it has accomplished.”
Real and Atletico have met just once before in the competition, in the 1959 semi-finals, where Real won a replay 2-1 after the two legs finished 2-2 on aggregate. Atletico’s only final appearance in 1974 saw them succumb to Bayern Munich 4-0 in a replay following a 1-1 draw. They had come through an infamous semi-final with Celtic, in which the Spaniards had three men sent off in the first leg at Parkhead and seven booked in a goalless draw, before winning the return leg 2-0 to seal their place in the final.
While Real beat Atletico en route to this season’s domestic cup trophy, Atletico still enjoyed a breakthrough year against their city neighbours, who are returning to the final for the first time since they triumphed 2-1 against Bayer Leverkusen at Hampden in 2002 – a win which will be forever remembered for the sublime volley from Zinedine Zidane’s which clinched the victory.
Atletico beat Madrid in the Copa del Rey final last season for their first win over their city rivals in 25 games. They followed that up with a league victory at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium and then with a draw at home at the Vicente Calderon.
Spanish leaders Atletico are six points ahead of Real, who have one game in hand, with three left to play, while Barcelona trail the pacesetters by four points.
The league has been dominated by Real and Barcelona since Valencia were the last club besides the big two to win the championship in 2004. But Atletico could clinch their first title since 1996 with a victory against Levante on Sunday if both Real and Barcelona lose their games.
The all-Spanish final also proves the domestic league is healthy despite continued economic problems.
Even the city’s clean-up crews should have an easy time co-ordinating their work following the victor’s celebrations.
Real traditionally celebrate their triumphs at Plaza de Cibeles, while Atletico’s fans gather just down the street at Plaza de Neptuno.
“This is the final all Madridistas have been waiting for,” Madrid fan Jose Luis Marron Rodriguez said. “Whatever the result, the European Cup stays at home. Now, let the best team win – I just hope it’s Madrid.”