They say glory is sweetest if it is hard earned and Atletico Madrid will really relate with that heading to the biggest match in club football in the world when they face the domestic arch rivals Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League final.
The two sides will be facing off for the third time this season and Atletico holds the bragging rights, having drawn with and beaten the Spanish giants in the two meetings this season. In fact, Real Madrid has beaten Atleti just once since the 2014 Champions League final win.
Heading to the final, Madrid have undoubtedly had the easier ride of the two, while Atletico had to go the extra mile, to overcome much tougher opposition – the likes of Bayern Munich and Barcelona.
Real Madrid, the more decorated of the finalists, amassed 16 points from the six group stage matches and in the process netted 19 goals.
Real, then led by Rafa Benitez was second seed in the UCL draw and were pitted alongside Swedish champions Malmo FF, French giants PSG and Ukrainian outfit Shakhtar Donetsk. The Madrid giants registered routine wins over Shakhtar and Malmo.
The biggest test came in the form of Paris Saint-Germain, as both sides contested for top spot. Real, marred with injuries at the time, struggled to a 0-0 draw away in France. Unlikely candidate Nacho would however rise to the occasion a fortnight later, to score the lone goal, in Madrid as Real went top of the group.
Despite going for four games without conceding they would later concede three at Shakhtar but recovered in time to fire eight past Malmo and seal qualification for the next round.
Real were pitted alongside a struggling Roma for the second round. With a change already effected at the dugout, and Zidane now in charge, Real had a comfortable sail, beating the Italians 4-0 0n aggregate.
At that point, the Madrid giants knew their only title hopes lay in the Champions League, but that was dented, with a 2 – 0 loss to German side VFL Wolfsburg in the first leg of the quarter finals.
Manager Zinedine Zidane however engineered a turn around, as Real whacked Wolfsburg 3 – 0 and proceeded to have a rather quiet two legs against Man City in the semi finals, with Fernando scoring an own goal in the second leg to ensure Real Madrid got to the Milan finale after a goalless first leg.
Atleti on the other side, was drawn in Group C alongside opponents that had won their domestic leagues. They went on to bag 13 points in the six group matches starting by seeing off Turkish side Galatasaray 2-0 before Benfica stunned them 2-1.
They would however gain revenge and see off Benfica in Lisbon, before completing a double over Galatasaray. Over Astana, Atleti collected four points from the two legs.
Atletico did not have it any easier in the second round as they were drawn against Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven, who gave a good account of themselves and ensured the two legged tie went all the way to penalties, which Atleti obviously won.
The real test was yet to come, as they were pitted next against defending champions Barcelona who were enjoying a great form in La Liga. A ruthless counter attack strategy saw Atleti recover from a 2 – 1 first leg loss, to beat Barca 2 – 0 at home and secure passage to the semis.
It did not get easier; next up for Atleti was a two legged tie against German heavyweights Bayern Munich. Saul Niguez’s goal in the first leg gave them a 1 – 0 advantage heading to Munich. At the Allianz Arena all odds were stacked against Atleti and it was all going wrong after Xabi Alonso’s first half goal though the hosts missed a 34th minute penalty.
Atleti resumed hungrier and Antoine Griezman scored the goal that would make the difference even as Robert Lewandowski grabbed a late one for the hosts.
Clearly, Atleti had the roughest terrain but their hard work and grit saw them progress step by step and heading to the final, they will for sure remember the 2014 capitulation that saw Real Madrid come from behind to beat them 4 – 1 in the final.