Asier Illarramendi

Preview: Atlético, Real bring Madrid derby to Champions League final in Lisbon

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Welcome, friends, to the 265th edition of the Madrid Derby. Only this time, it’s being played out in Lisbon, Portugal, where Atlético Madrid meet Real Madrid in the Champions League final.

This final boasts a wealth of storylines. There’s the über-rich vs. the “scrappy startups”, which rather falls apart when you realize Atléti’ have won La Liga and the Copa del Rey ten times, have hoisted the European Cup Winners’ Cup, and, most recently, won the Europa League, in both 2010 and 2012. Real, however, certainly are rich, as demonstrated most recently when spending over 100m on Gareth Bale.

Then we’ve got the recent injuries that have struck both sides. Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored 31 goals in La Liga and 16 in the Champions League, hasn’t played since May 7th, when he took himself off in what was ultimately a draw with Valladolid. Most believe the superstar will start – which is more than can be said for Atlético’s top scorer. Diego Costa, with 8 UCL goals and 27 in the league, started last week’s title decider against Barcelona. However, he pulled up after just 15 minutes with a hamstring tear. His outlook, however, might not be as bleak as previously thought.

Plus, this final boasts of a fantastic duel of the nicknames: it’s Real’s Los Merengues (The Meringues) taking on Atléti’s Los Colchoneros (The Mattress-Makers). I think we know who wins this one.

Kickoff in Lisbon is on Saturday, May 24 at 2:45 p.m. ET. You won’t want to miss this one.

How they got here

Real: Their second-place finish in Spain assured Real direct entry into the group stage. Los Blancos easily topped their group, losing points only to Juventus, and moved on to face Schalke. Real made the German side cry (most likely literally) with a 9-2 aggregate win. Last year’s runners’ up proved tougher, but Los Merengues beat Borussia Dormund 3-2…only to find themselves up against last year’s winners, Bayern Munich. It was a tough first leg but Real destroyed the German side in the second, ultimately winning 5-0 on aggregate.

Atléti: After finishing third in La Liga last season, Atléti went directly into the group stages, where they won five and picked up sixteen points total. Los Colchoneros had no trouble seeing off AC Milan in the Round of 16, beating the Italian side 5-1 on aggregate. Next up came fellow La Liga opponents Barcelona, but Atlético were able to hold them to just one goal to move on to the semi-finals. There they encountered Chelsea, whose double-parked bus kept Atlético out in the first leg, but broke down in the second. Undefeated throughout the tournament, Atléti are hoping to become the first side since 2008 to lift the trophy without a loss.

What to watch for

The battle between Real’s potent attack and Atlético’s clinical defending. The latter have one of the best defenses in all of Europe, evidenced not just by their conceding only 26 goals in their 38 La Liga matches, but by the fact that only six goals were scored against them during the Champions League tournament. They’re tough, they’re physical, they’re very near relentless.

But Los Merengues are one of the few sides that have taken Atléti to task this season. However, they did it in the Copa del Rey semi-finals, winning 5-0 over two legs, while Atlético won once in the league, and the two sides played out a 2-2 draw in their last meeting. Real have one of the best offenses in the world, particularly if both Ronaldo and Karim Benzema are fit to start alongside Bale. Ángel di María, who notched the most assists in La Liga this season, and Luka Modrić, one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the world, will also be on hand to ensure their forwards have plenty of scoring opportunities.

If they can unlock Atléti’s well-executed plans, that is.

Projected Lineups

Real Madrid (4-3-3): Iker Casillas; Dani Carvajal, Raphaël Varane, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo; Luka Modrić, Asier Illarramendi, Ángel di María; Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo

Atlético Madrid (4-2-3-1):  Thibaut Courtois; Juanfran, Diego Godín, Miranda, Filipe Luís; Gabi, Tiago Mendes; Arda Turan, Raúl Garcia, Koke; David Villa

Prediction

Real Madrid to finally clinch La Décima. Los Merengues have been chasing their 10th European Cup since 2002. This will finally be the year that all their hard work (and hard spending) pays off.

Bale scores debut goal as Real Madrid labor to 2-2 draw

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With all the pressure, all the hype, and quite frankly all the money surrounding Gareth Bale’s drawn-out move to Real Madrid, he went a long way towards silencing the critics by scoring a goal on debut.

Los Blancos couldn’t keep two separate leads in a physical battle with Villarreal on the road on Saturday, managing just a share of the points in a 2-2 draw, but in the end Bale stole the headlines.

It came in the 38th minute as Luka Modric played through right-back Daniel Carvajal on the right edge of the penalty area. Carvajal fired a low cross along the face of the goal past Cristiano Ronaldo and fell to a streaking Bale who slid in and slotted it home.

The Welshman tweeted that he was “proud” to get a goal on debut, and that his 60 minutes of time was a sticking point for him too, as he works to get back to full match fitness.

Speaking about Bale and fellow debutant Asier Illarramendi, Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti said, “I think they did well. I didn’t want to run the risk of playing them for 90 minutes because it is not good for them in their first game for a while. I think Bale is happy because he has scored for the first time with Real Madrid, which is very important for him. It was a difficult game for all of us but he played well and showed a good attitude.”

Throughout most of the match Bale actually looked a bit sluggish, failing to have a serious mark on the match other than his score, but the goal is ultimately what he will be judged on and in that sense the start to his Real Madrid career should be seen as a success.

Real technical director Emilio Butragueno echoed Ancelotti’s sentiments on Bale, saying, “It is great news that he has scored on his debut. It was his first game with his teammates and he has only had three days with them, but he is a player with enormous potential.”

Madrid often looked on the back foot at Villarreal, with goalkeeper Diego Lopez making plenty of acrobatic saves to keep the visitors from their first defeat of the season.  Ancelotti said after the match that he would start Iker Casillas for the first time in the upcoming Champions League match against Galatasaray on Tuesday.

Real Madrid sign Asier Illarramendi for $52 million, who is he?

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Carlo Ancelotti is beginning to find his feet as Real Madrid manager. We know that because he’s splashing the cash.

But have you heard of ex-Real Sociedad midfielder Asier Illarramendi, who Madrid just snapped up for a cool $52 million?

Chances are unless you’re an avid fan of La Liga or the Spanish youth setup, Illarramendi’s name may have been off your radar.

Until now.

The 23-year-old holding midfielder was picked in the team of the tournament, as he played in every game the Spanish Under-21 side that won the European Championships in Israel this summer. Illarramendi has been at Real Sociedad for his entire his career and played a leading role as the Basque side finished fourth in La Liga last season, securing a Champions League spot in the process.

And Madrid’s new man was humble after leaving his hometown club for one of the world’s biggest teams.

“It hasn’t been an easy decision, it has been very difficult for me to decide because Real Sociedad have given me so much,” Illarramendi said. “I was on holiday when we started to hear about the interest from Real Madrid. There were contacts, we mulled it over and came to the conclusion that it was an offer we couldn’t refuse. It’s a unique opportunity.”

Unique, maybe. Life changing, definitely.

(MORE: Real Madrid confirm Isco capture, set to unveil former Málaga star)

The Spanish youngster is seen as the long-term replacement for Spanish international Xabi Alonso in the engine room of Madrid’s midfield and with fellow Under-21 star Isco joining him, Illarramendi will have a partner in crime straight away. So is this what Real will become under Ancelotti? Instead of buying top foreign talent, it seems as if Madrid’s new mantra is to snap up the best domestic players available.

Splashing out on Isco and Illarramendi has cost over $90 million and the future of Real seems to have been placed on their shoulders. Investing in two rising stars for the future was never Madrid’s way in the past, now, refreshingly, it seems to be the way forward.

And now relative veterans such as Kaká, Pepe and Gonzalo Higuain are being forced towards the exit door as the young stars roll into town.

(MORE: Ancelotti promises “most spectacular football” at Real Madrid)

Can Isco and Illarramendi wreck havoc in a new-look Madrid side next season? Bet on it. These two are something special. And if you hadn’t heard of Illarramendi before this huge transfer, you’ll be hearing plenty of rave reviews this season from the Santiago Bernabeu.

Kaká set to lose No. 8 shirt at Real Madrid

Real Betis Balompie v Real Madrid CF - La Liga
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If he doesn’t take this hint, soon he’ll find his locker next to the janitor’s closet. Then his team car will be repossessed. Then his apartment will be replaced by a mobile home that’s driven to the Madrid airport while he and his wife are asleep. This is just a more subtle if completely obvious sign Kaká should move on from Real Madrid.

According to reports out of Spain, Kaká’s eight shirt — the one he’s worn since his arrival from AC Milan four years ago — has been put aside for a new, 23-year-old midfielder. Asier Illarramendi may have been a part of Spain’s European U-21 title-winners this summer and a regular contributor to a Real Sociedad team that claimed Spain’s last Champions League spot this season, but he’s no former Balon d’Or winner. He’s doesn’t have a Champions League medal, nor has he won a World Cup, and while shirt numbers may be the only thing less meaningless than formal transfer requests, some athletes can become attached to them. Whether Kaká is attached to his or not, having the eight shirt taken from him could be seen as a slap in the face.

Another way of putting it, according to Marca:

… Real has decided on a number for Asier Illarramendi, who is on the brink of becoming a ‘Los Blancos’ player.

Illarramendi donned the number 8 last season with Real Sociedad, and Real Madrid hopes that the European Under-21 champion can continue to wear the same number next season, provided that Ricardo Kaká’s departure from the club is confirmed. This is yet more evidence that Kaká does not form part of Carlo Ancelotti’s plans for the future.

So perhaps Kaká won’t be changing next to the janitor after all, but the note about Ancelotti’s particularly interesting. The new Real Madrid boss make Kaká the focal point of Milan’s last Champions League-winning side, so you’d assume there’s some loyalty there. But loyalty can only go so far, particularly in a team that has Mesut Ozil, Luka Modric, and the recently-signed Isco.

On one level, you’d hope Kaká would get a more appreciative departure, but he’s had opportunities to leave during the last two years. Instead, he’s elected to stay, and while he still has two years on his deal, the club may be ready to move on, whether he wants to or not.