History will be made today. It will be Real Madrid’s 10th European Cup or Atletico Madrid’s first; Spain’s richest club’s finest hour, or their monumental humbling at the hands of poorer relations.
But if the Real boardroom is fit to burst with the pressure of it all – leaving the club president Florentino Perez, who has spent most of the €1 billion (£800m) laid out on new players since the last European success in 2002, on permanent edge since the semi-finals – the stress does not seem to have reached his most expensive acquisition.
“I don’t feel pressure. I focus on the one thing I know I can control – the football,” says Gareth Bale, who just nine months after his Real debut plays in the club’s biggest game for over a decade.
With the build-up to today’s match so puffed up by the club’s obsession with becoming the first to reach European Cup double figures, Real have needed a little air taken out of the situation and no one has done that better than Bale, whose ability to downplay everything extended to his extraordinary goal against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final last month.
“I just kept my eye on the ball” is his perfectly understated way of describing the way he sprinted from the halfway line in the 85th minute, unflustered by Marc Bartra barging him off the pitch, to poke home the winner. And he refutes the claim that the goal lifted a weight from his €100m shoulders. “There was never any weight,” he says. “I just focus on playing. I know my football will deliver.”
Real team-mates have looked on in admiration this season at just how little the club’s record signing has been affected by early injury problems, questions over his astronomical transfer fee and doubts about his ability to adapt to La Liga.
There was a time just before the mid-winter break when his “minutes missed” total was as high as his “minutes played”. The club admitted he had a spinal disc hernia and speculation mounted about just how soon he would need an operation in what would surely be a troubled first season.
But as the campaign draws to its climax, Bale has 21 goals and 19 assists to his name in 43 games. With Cristiano Ronaldo nursing some tendinitis in his left knee and Karim Benzema an ankle knock in the build-up to the final, Bale has even finished the season in better shape than the strikers he plays alongside.
He admits it’s been a sharp learning curve. “I’m tactically more aware than I was when I arrived,” he says. “I am more able to make the right runs to get into goal-scoring positions.” The work done with him on the training ground by the manager, Carlo Ancelotti, and his English assistant Paul Clement has helped him adapt. The mere presence of Zinedine Zidane has added to the wonderment.
“I was 12 years old when he scored that goal to win the club their ninth European Cup,” he says of the volley at Hampden Park against Bayer Leverkusen. Zidane has been as impressed as anyone with the adaptation and as excited as anyone to see in the flesh what all of Spain had seen many times over on the screen with endless replays of Bale’s goals for Spurs against Internazionale shown before he arrived.
The fear for Real going into today’s game is that Atletico will not allow Bale the space to make the most of his greatest weapon, his speed; and that Ronaldo will be similarly nullified by their deep-lying defence. “They’re very well-organised defensively and very physical, we know that,” says Bale, recalling the second league game of the season between the two sides when Ancelotti criticised Atletico’s strong-arm tactics.
“It was like a wrestling match at times,” says Bale of that encounter. “They play good football as well, of course they do, but their main strength is the way they defend and how strong they are all over the pitch.”
Atletico are the best defensive side in the competition while Real have scored more goals in this year’s tournament than any team before them. But to the suggestion that this will be defence against attack Bale responds: “We went 10 games without conceding a goal earlier this season; it’s about defending well and attacking well, keeping them out and taking our chances when they come.”
Bale’s calm has been matched by that shown by Ancelotti, who said the greatest obstacle for Real going into the game would be fear and gleefully described Bale’s state of mind as “excited about the prospect of playing his first final”.
“I’m not thinking about what happens if we lose, only how we might win the game,” Ancelotti said this week. And if the pressure is off Real despite what is at stake, then it has also been lifted from their opponents by last weekend’s La Liga title win.
Having performed so well all season in all three competitions, to have blown the league would have left them heading into the last game of the campaign knowing they could end their most exciting season having won nothing – not unlike Bayer Leverkusen, the team Real beat back in 2002, who finished that campaign with the unwanted honour of being the first side ever to finish a season as runners-up in the league, domestic cup and Champions League.
But with the league won the pressure is off. Diego Simeone’s side will feel like the away team in Portugal with most of the home supporters backing Ronaldo and Real. But then it was much the same this time last year when they won the Copa del Rey in the Bernabeu against Real and even more so last week when they claimed the league ahead of Barcelona in the Nou Camp.
Their ability to conquer enemy territory in spite of an apparent deficit in artillery is impressive. “Wars throughout history have been won not by the best armies but by the best-prepared armies,” said Simeone in the build-up to the quarter-final win over Barcelona.
There is still a feeling that Real’s big guns will be the difference today, however. It might have played into Atletico’s hands had the pressure of delivering La Decima got to the Real players but it does not seem to have.
Real Madrid supporters have their eyes on the prize; Bale is determined to just keep his eye on the ball. “When we play well we can do what we do to any team,” he says. “We are prepared; we are 100 per cent ready.”
Real's nine Cups
1955-56, 1956-57, 1957-58, 1958-59, 1959-60, 1965-66, 1997-98, 1999-2000, 2001-02
Routes to the final
Group stages (Winner Group B)
Galatasaray (a) Won 6-1
Copenhagen (h) Won 4-0
Juventus (h) Won 2-1
Juventus (a) Drew 2-2
Galatasaray (h) Won 4-1
Copenhagen (a) Won 2-0
Round of 16 Beat Schalke 9-2 on aggregate
Quarter-final Bt Borussia Dortmund 3-2 on agg
Semi-final Bt Bayern Munich 5-0 on agg
Group stages (Winner Group G)
Z St Petersburg (h) Won 3-1
Porto (a) Won 2-1
Austria Vienna (a) Won 3-0
Austria Vienna (h) Won 4-0
Z St Petersburg (a) Drew 1-1
Porto (h) Won 2-0
Round of 16 Bt Milan 5-1 on aggregate
Quarter-final Bt Barcelona 2-1 on agg
Semi-final Bt Chelsea 3-1 on agg