Cristiano Ronaldo is set to start for Real Madrid in Saturday night’s Champions League final but doubts continue to linger over a quartet of key men for both teams on the eve of the big match.
Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti said the Portugal captain and former Sporting Lisbon player will have “no problems” in being fit and ready to feature at Benfica’s Estádio da Luz after suffering problems with a hamstring injury. The Italian will, however, be sweating on the fitness of striker Karim Benzema and Portuguese defender Pepe.
They were assessed in Los Blancos’ final training session before the match on Friday, as were key Atletico Madrid duo Diego Costa (groin) and Arda Turan (pelvis). The Rojiblancos pair suffered their injuries in Saturday’s La Liga finale against Barcelona, which saw Atleti win the league for the first time in 18 years, and Simeone will give them until the last minute to prove they are ready to feature.
“We’ll be looking at them in today’s session,” Simeone told a packed media conference on Friday afternoon. “They trained better yesterday but we’ll have to see how they train and feel, both Diego and Arda, and then we’ll see and decide on that basis.”
Spanish international Costa, who has scored 35 goals in 42 appearances in all competitions this season, including eight from eight in his debut Champions League season, has looked to give himself every chance of playing. He took a trip to Belgrade on Wednesday to see Marijana Kovacevic, known as the ‘miracle doctor’, about his injury before returning to train with the rest of his teammates on Thursday and continued his recovery on Friday.
Atleti midfielder Raul Garcia gave no further hints as to the fitness of his teammates but says they are doing everything possible to play in what will be the biggest match of their careers so far. “We’ve been speaking all week long with them,” he said. “We always try to be aware of the physical state of each of our players and they’re doing everything possible to see if they can be ready for tomorrow. That’s what we want and tomorrow we’ll see if they’re ready or not.”
Los Colchoneros will be boosted if both are passed fit but Simeone has been planning alternatives should his injury doubts not make it. “We have to ignore all of external factors when we play as to whether Arda or Costa will play - they're just names,” he said. “They're very important players in team of course but there are other players who know they will be playing if they don’t. We’re working in preparation for whatever happens, the two players who will come in know who they are.”
Ronaldo’s participation looked under threat in his side’s season finale against Espanyol on Saturday when he withdrew from the starting line-up after complaining of discomfort in the warm-up. The 29-year-old, returning to the city that helped shape his career at Sporting, has recovered well, however, and after completing a personalised training programme early this week returned to full training on Thursday.
The chances of Benzema and Pepe are less certain but both completed the final session seemingly unscathed on Friday. “I think today’s session is very important to assess (the fitness of all three players),” said Ancelotti, who is looking for his third Champions League triumph as a manager. “Cristiano doesn't have any problems, he’s trained well. We’ll have to see how Pepe and Benzema are because they haven’t trained this week. Today they will start the training session and after we’ll take the decision.”
Ronaldo has been the player of the tournament so far with a haul of 16 goals that has seen him take the record of most goals in one season of the competition and his manager knows how crucial he will be on Saturday night. “He’s a very important weapon,” he said. “His statistics are there for everyone to see, they're impressive. We need him, he has played an excellent season, scored 16 goals and helped the team to reach this final.”
It will be the fifth time the Spanish capital clubs have met this season. Atleti secured the bragging rights in La Liga by taking four points from a possible six but their more illustrious neighbours eased to a 5-0 aggregate victory in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey. It means both side will know the other well and both managers are expecting a tough night.
“We have to use every resource we have, we have to defend well and attack well,” said Ancelotti. “I don’t expect much of a difference between the two - I also see great similarities in terms of attack and defence.”
Simeone called his opponents “a very comprehensive team” and continued: “They’ve got counter-attack, a good goalkeeper a good defence, strikers - they’re one of the best teams in the world. They’re ranked first in the world so thats who we’re facing. Aside from the fact we won the league we’ll be playing with humility and knowing we’re facing a very good team.”
Xabi Alonso will also miss out for Real Madrid through suspension, with Asier Illarramendi expected to take his place in midfield, while Jese Rodriguez is also definitely sidelined with a knee injury.