Atletico Madrid's second chance to win Champions League vs. Real Madrid

MILAN, Italy -- "It's not about revenge, it really isn't. It's about a second chance, an opportunity you did not think you would ever get again. It's a gift, really. And you want to take it."
On Wednesday, I had the opportunity to talk to Massimo Ambrosini and Cafu who, in their own way, can probably relate to how Atletico Madrid feel ahead of Saturday's Champions League final against Real Madrid. These two former Milan teammates also had the cup wrapped up, only for it to slip from their grasp in the most improbable and dramatic way. And, two years later, they also were granted another opportunity.
That was their message: It's not about revenge, it's about a chance to relive your past.
You can debate what's more painful: letting a 3-0 half-time lead crumble and run through your fingers like dust, or falling to an unlikely last-ditch header. Both are gut-wrenching. And when, two seasons on, fate presents you with the very same opponent -- Liverpool for Milan in 2005 and 2007, Real for Atletico in 2014 and 2016 -- in the very same context, you have to treat it as a gift from the football gods.
(The karmic symmetry goes further if you're of a superstitious disposition: Atletico will take over the Milan dressing room at the San Siro and their fans will be in the rossoneri's Curva Sud end of the ground.)
In Atletico's case, the concept of second chances is magnified by the club's own peculiar history. They lost their first European Cup final when, while leading 1-0, they conceded a late, late goal to Bayern Munich -- the equalizer sent the tie to a replay, which they lost -- and then waited 40 years for another crack, only to lose again on a last-ditch effort: Sergio Ramos' injury-time header levelled the score and sent the game into extra time, where Real Madrid notched three more goals.
There is no dispute as to who plays second fiddle in Madrid. It's Atletico. That's what happens when you share the stage with a team that has the word "royal" in its name. Some clubs in two-team cities get delusional, while others embrace it. Atleti did the latter and once produced a commercial in which a young boy asks, "Dad, why are we Atleti fans?" And the father is struck dumb.
Yes, why indeed, when the guys across town, the ones in white, are among the most dominant teams in the history of the game?

The underdog label, vaguely countercultural, fits the club comfortably, and Diego Simeone, from the moment he arrived as manager in 2011, did nothing to dispel it. It has served them well, though perhaps it's wearing a bit thin.
After all, Atleti finished just two points behind Real in La Liga this season and can count in their ranks the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Koke, Saul and Diego Godin, all of whom are either Galacticos-in-the-making or guys who would be considered Galacticos if they wore a white jersey rather than red-and-white stripes.
Perhaps Simeone himself realizes this. In Friday's news conference, he did not speak like an underdog coach, trotting out the "we've got nothing to lose" tropes. Instead, he talked about how Real Madrid had played on the counterattack in the semifinals and how it was Casemiro, the unheralded defensive midfielder, who allowed them to do this, making the Brazilian their most important player.
And Simeone said that he loved the weight of 113 years of history, an oblique reference to Real's sporting noblesse oblige and their 10 European Cups and how Atletico's history was no less important to them. Only a win would leave him satisfied.
Contrast this with the words of his opposite number, Zinedine Zidane.
"Losing will not be a failure," he said. "Failure is in your attitude, or if you don't give your all. It's just a football game."
You can't imagine Zidane's predecessors saying something like that and getting away with it. Not Rafa Benitez, not Carlo Ancelotti and certainly not Jose Mourinho.
The vibe is different with Zidane, at least in public. Maybe he can get away with it because the real pressure on Real was winning La Decima, which they did two years ago. The Undecima -- 11th -- would be nice, but it's not the object of the same obsessive pursuit as the double-digit European Cup.
Then there's the fact that, in less than six months as manager, Zidane has surpassed expectations and is well ahead of schedule. Or maybe he gets away with it because he is a cast-iron club legend, unlike those who preceded him, outsiders brought in to deliver glory.

Whatever the case, things have been extraordinarily low-key since the Frenchman took over from Benitez back in January. Results have helped, certainly, but it's remarkable how the sniping that affected previous managers hasn't manifested itself.
All this despite the many players in Real's squad with huge egos and uncertain futures. Whatever Zidane is doing on a man-management level, it's panning out. If he's feeling the pressure, it's not showing and it's likely not filtering down to his players, either.
Or maybe Real Madrid are just a bit looser because they've already won it. Six of their likely starters on Saturday night also started the final two years ago. Two others -- Pepe and Marcelo -- were on the bench that night in Lisbon.
There's a whole encyclopedia of "athlete-speak" about being hungry after success and always wanting more, and while you don't doubt that it applies to many, it's hard to imagine that repeating a successful act is as much of a motivator as making history the first time.
That said, if you break it down to individuals, there are plenty with much to gain from a personal point of view. Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, has had a glittering career but has yet to deliver that signature, show-stealing moment on the biggest stage. (No, his late penalty in 2014 doesn't count as one, though he certainly celebrated as if it were.)
Meanwhile, Gareth Bale awaits the passing of the torch from Ronaldo, assuming it is ever given up. For Karim Benzema, these are his Euros, since he has been dropped by France manager Didier Deschamps. Keeper Keylor Navas can banish the ghost of David De Gea once and for all.
Still, crazy as it sounds, there may be less pressure on the side that treats the European Cup as a birthright rather than the side that has never won it. And maybe part of it is the gift of a second chance. It's highly unusual that you get another opportunity -- a footballing Groundhog Day. You want to make it count.

Atletico Madrid’s rise to the top of European football has been a refreshing lesson that money cannot buy everything, yet they can still be hard team to like.
Neutrals are torn between admiration for the way in which coach Diego Simeone has transformed and reinvented his side over the last four years, and discomfort at the defensive tactics and gamesmanship that have been used to achieve it.
Simeone, who prowls the touchline with the same menacing air with which he patrolled the Argentina midfield during his playing career, has turned the Mattress Makers from relegation candidates into one of Europe’s top sides.
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