European football’s biggest game could be without some of its biggest stars when Real Madrid host neighbours Atletico Madrid in the final of the Champions League on Saturday night.
Both of Spain’s capital clubs have been convincing in their respective routes to Benfica’s Estádio da Luz but their successful seasons domestically and in Europe have caught up with them in recent weeks with both suffering injuries to key players.
Atletico’s first La Liga triumph in 18 years came at a cost at the Camp Nou on Saturday night as top-scorer Diego Costa and midfielder Arda Turan both limped off inside the first 25 minutes. Diego Simeone’s men hung on to claim a 1-1 draw that was enough to see them crowned Spanish champions but the key duo are now big doubts for Lisbon.
"We will wait to see how the Diego Costa and Arda Turan injury situation evolves by the end of week," said Simeone. "We will seek alternatives if they do not recover in time.” He added: “This is not a game for players at 80 per cent. Obviously we need players who are in good condition.”
La Liga’s newly-crowned champions confirmed on Monday that Costa, the club’s top-scorer with 35 goals in all competitions this season, suffered a grade 1 hamstring strain at the Camp Nou. The Spanish international left the pitch in tears with his participation in Saturday’s final and this summer’s World Cup in doubt. The former Braga forward could have played his final match in the red and white with a move to Chelsea on the cards this summer. Turan followed suit just seven minutes later with a pelvic injury that has also threatened his involvement in Lisbon.
Both players are expected to travel with the rest of the squad to the Portuguese capital and be given until the last minute to prove their fitness but Simeone is already planning alternatives. Adrian, who scored in Los Colchoneros’ 3-1 victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the semi-final, and Raul Garcia replaced the injured pair at the weekend and the Argentine could stick with the same tried-and-tested formula on Saturday night.
The treatment room at Real Madrid’s Valdebebas training base is just as busy with no fewer than four key players battling to be ready for the club’s biggest match in a decade. There were doubts over the fitness of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Pepe at the start of this week and Blancos manager Carlo Ancelotti revealed mixed news about the quartet’s possible involvement at Tuesday’s open training session and press conference.
The Italian, who has won the competition twice before with Italian giants AC Milan, confirmed that both Bale and Ronaldo are set to play while the fitness of Benzema and Pepe will continue to be monitored.
Ronaldo, who shared the European Golden Shoe award with Liverpool’s Luis Suarez with 31 goals apiece this season, pulled out of the warm-up before Madrid’s final La Liga game of the season against Espanyol at the Bernabeu on Saturday. The club’s talisman had been keen to feature to win the Golden Shoe outright but withdrew just before kick-off after complaining of feeling discomfort. The former Manchester United man had missed his side’s previous match, a defeat at Celta Vigo, after limping off just eight minutes into the draw at Real Valladolid but his absence at the weekend was precautionary rather than a setback.
He trained separately from the rest of the Madrid squad on Tuesday and will continue to follow his own personal training plan until rejoining his teammates on Thursday, the final training session before Los Merengues travel to Lisbon. "I will be there on Saturday,” he told reporters. "I'm still not 100 per cent right now but I will be at the final. It's something very important, we work throughout the year to play in finals and win them.” Given Ronaldo’s numerous niggling setbacks in the last two months his fitness will be looked upon with suspicion but the former Sporting Lisbon man said he would be “100 per cent” for the final.
Bale was also absent from training on Tuesday but completed the full 90 minutes against Espanyol at the weekend and Ancelotti said: "He's done specific work in the gym. He didn't need to come out on the pitch in today's session.”
The biggest concerns surround Benzema, who laid the foundations for his side’s semi-final success over holders Bayern Munich with the only goal in the first-leg 1-0 win in the Spanish capital, and Pepe. The Frenchman pulled up on Saturday with a groin injury while Pepe is recovering from a calf injury. "They're the only two players about whom we have doubts,” Ancelotti confirmed. “I'm neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I'm a realist and, as things stand right now, of course they wouldn't be able to play.”
The Italian confirmed that Raphael Varane would come in for Pepe if he was not passed fit to feature but the biggest headache would surround Benzema’s absence. Youngster Alvaro Morata has been the former Lyon frontman’s replacement in La Liga but his lack of big-game experience is a worry. Angel Di Maria could also move into Madrid’s front three with Ronaldo moving into a more central role, while Isco provides another option. Jese Rodriguez, Madrid’s revelation in attack this season, is sidelined as he recovers from a knee injury.
The problems for Los Blancos also stem from Xabi Alonso’s suspension. The Spain international, who lifted the trophy with Liverpool in 2005, collected his third yellow card of the tournament against Munich and his absence will be a big blow in a match that could well be decided in the midfield department. Ancelotti has confirmed that youngster Asier Illarramendi is his first option to replace his fellow Basque but Sami Khedira is also ready to feature after playing in Madrid’s last two matches.
There will be star players absent this weekend and there will be star players not at 100 per cent but there will still be plenty of star quality on show in Lisbon.