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Champions League Final Preview: The Defensive Battle

san-siro-uclVictory in the Champions League final on Saturday could rest on how well either Atletico Madrid or Real Madrid defends, but both have a much different approach to that particular area of the game.

There is no better defence in Europe than that of Atleti, who only conceded 18 league goals in this campaign while stifling both Barcelona and Bayern Munich en route to the big match at Milan’s Stadio Giuseppe Meazza.

Sitting deep is the key behind their success, allowing their forwards to hit opponents on the counter attack.

One way Real could attack Atleti’s defence is by using width. Simeone likes to protect the middle of the pitch, and agaiinst Barcelona and Bayern we saw that tactic left plenty of room for the fullbacks to attack. Both of Barcelona’s goals and Bayern’s open play goal all came via fullback crosses.

In a game where Madrid will have Atleti pinned back and those superstar wing-forwards will be roaming centrally looking to score, the fullbacks supplying width will be key not only for shape but actually breaking Atleti down. Remember: Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale are stupendous in the air, allowing crosses into them is a recipe for disaster. And it’s a recipe Daniel Carvajal and Marcelo must surely follow – their ability to play on the ball will be key to penning Atléti back and denying them the ball.

With Real expected to have the majority of possession, Simeone will look to hit them on the counter-attack. But their best weapon might be their set piece efficiency.

Atleti were a monstrous team when attacking set-pieces. Their combination of great height, powerful aerial skills and superb delivery from Koke or Gabi, resulted in a whopping 26 set-piece goals being scored in La Liga.

The goal that won them the 2013 Copa del Rey was a set-piece header, the one that won them the 2014 Liga was a set-piece header. That’s their style, but this season their efficiency is down. They still take many a set-piece, but they rarely score any more, with just nine goals this season (even Real Madrid have more, with 16).

Atleti know they won’t see much of the ball, especially if Madrid play through the width offered by their fullbacks. Atleti’s main course of action will be to defend and defend and then defend some more. It has been their calling card all season, and that’s fine, but without their set-piece threat they lose that sense of being able to score at any time.

That sense which instills fear in the opposition, where Madrid defenders will think twice about giving away a foul or a corner, making them more likely to overthink and make a mistake. A mistake that will allow Atleti to do some damage in open play (another avenue of attack they must not ignore). Koke and Gabi have to step their game up and start delivering devilish crosses again.