Bale ready to grasp nettle in Champions League final
Gareth Bale. Pic: Getty Images

On the final day of the Premier League season in May last year, Gareth Bale produced the latest in a series of wonder goals to hand Tottenham Hotspur a 1-0 win over Sunderland.

On Saturday (Sunday WA time), Bale will be playing in all white against a side in red and white stripes once more in his last game of the season, but in very different circumstances as Real Madrid meet Atletico Madrid in the Champions League final in Lisbon.

A Spurs victory wasn’t enough that day to seal Champions League football as they lost out once more to north London neighbours Arsenal for fourth place and set in motion an anxious summer for Bale as he tried to force through a move to the world’s richest club.

Finally, on September 1, a deal was official announced with the Welshman reportedly becoming the most expensive player in world football in the move to the Spanish capital.

That summer stress and early criticism of his time at Madrid as he suffered from niggling injuries due to the lack of a pre-season has now been long forgotten as Bale has the scene he craved waiting for him at the Estadio da Luz on Saturday.

“These are the reasons why you come to Real Madrid, to the biggest club in the world, to play in finals and try and win trophies and I am obviously looking forward to it,” said the Welshman as he faced the glare of over 300 media personnel at Real’s open day ahead of the final.

Real have been waiting 12 years for that 10th European Cup The search for La Decima, as it is known locally, has seen the club spend over a billion euros ($A2.10b) in player transfers to recreate the night when Zinedine Zidane’s sensational volley handed them a ninth European crown against Bayer Leverkusen in Glasgow.

“I don’t think we feel the pressure, or at least any added pressure,” Bale said.

Bale has already written himself into the history of the club with a stunning winning goal in a final as his 50-yard dash and finish won the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona last month.

But he insists it doesn’t matter if it is he, World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo, or anyone else who scores the winner as long as the famous trophy with the big ears is decorated with white ribbons come full-time on Saturday.

“It is going to be a difficult game, we know Atletico are in a good moment this season and for us, no matter who scores the winner, we are going to be very happy and that is what we are targeting,” he said.

THE SQUADS

REAL MADRID

GOALKEEPERS

1. Iker Casillas (ESP)

A hero of Real’s last Champions League win over Bayer Leverkusen at Hampden Park, Casillas, who turned 33 on Tuesday, has overcome the most difficult 18 months of his 15-year career at the Bernabeu to lead his side out in Lisbon.

25. Diego Lopez (ESP)

Whilst Lopez has been the number one choice in goal in La Liga, he has played just 75 minutes of Champions League football this season when Casillas was injured against Galatasaray and will have to watch from the bench unless misfortune strikes Real’s captain once more.

DEFENDERS

2. Raphael Varane (FRA)

Rated as one of the top young defenders in Europe after a string of stunning performances last season, the 21-year-old has endured a frustrating year as a persistent knee injury has limited his first-team opportunities. However, he could start in Lisbon should Pepe fail to recover in time from a calf injury.

3. Pepe (POR)

The Brazilian-born Portugal international is in a race against time to be fit to play in his adopted homeland due to a calf strain.

4. Sergio Ramos (ESP)

The lynchpin of the Real defence, Ramos has won virtually every honour at club and international level barring the Champions League.

He exorcised the ghosts of his costly penalty miss against Bayern Munich in the semi-finals two years ago with two goals in this year’s semi-finals against the same opponents after which he claimed the competition “owes him one”.

5. Fabio Coentrao (POR)

Much derided among the Madrid fans and press after his 30 million euros ($A45.00 million) move from Benfica in 2011, Coentrao has become an important player in recent months as he shone in both attack and defence in Real’s Copa del Rey final win over Barcelona and the thrashing of Bayern in the semi-finals.

12. Marcelo (BRA)

An undisputed starter under boss Carlo Ancelotti until a hamstring injury cost him his place in the team back in March, Marcelo may miss out on a starting place in Lisbon due to Coentrao’s fine form.

15. Dani Carvajal (ESP)

Carvajal has become a key part of the Real side in his first season with the first team since the club exercised a buy-back option to bring him back to the Bernabeu after one stellar season with Bayer Leverkusen last year.

MIDFIELDERS

6. Sami Khedira (GER)

Khedira has just returned from a seven-month injury lay-off after cruciate knee ligament damage, but despite his lack of match fitness Ancelotti could prefer his experience to the youth of Casemiro and Asier Illaramendi in the absence of the suspended Xabi Alonso.

19. Luka Modric (CRO)

Modric has become a fans’ favourite in his second season in the Spanish capital and will be charged with even more responsibility to dominate the midfield in Alonso’s absence. Well-known for his excellent passing and ability to shoot from range, but it is his defensive work that has often won the admiration of Ancelotti.

22. Angel di Maria (ARG)

A player transformed by a change of position, Di Maria’s energy is crucial to the balance of Madrid’s central midfield. The Argentine, who used to play in Lisbon for Benfica, has also remained a goal threat from his deeper role with 14 this season, including one against Atletico in the Copa del Rey back in January.

24. Asier Illarramendi (ESP)

A 37 million-euro ($50.7m, 30m) signing from Real Sociedad last July, Illarramendi is the favourite to replace Alonso but has often looked overawed in the biggest games so far this season.

23. Isco (ESP)

A victim of Ancelotti’s switch to a 4-3-3 system, Isco has failed to find his ideal position after a promising start to the campaign, but will be called upon from the bench if Real need some magic to break down Atletico’s rigid defence as the game progresses.

FORWARDS

7. Cristiano Ronaldo (POR)

Even for a player so accustomed to breaking records, Ronaldo’s 16 in 10 games in the Champions League this season has been a new high. Now in his fifth season with Madrid, the Portuguese has the chance to add a Champions League title in a white shirt to the one he won with Manchester United in 2008, when he scored in the final against Chelsea.

9. Karim Benzema (FRA)

Given confidence by knowing he is Ancelotti’s first-choice striker, Benzema has flourished under the Italian scoring 24 goals and just as importantly providing the perfect foil for the pace of Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

11. Gareth Bale (WAL)

Bale said he left Tottenham Hotspur last summer for games like the Champions League final and has the chance to round off a fine first year in the Spanish capital by adding European football’s greatest prize to the Copa del Rey he won with a stunning solo run and finish against Barcelona last month.

COACH

Carlo Ancelotti (ITA)

Ancelotti could become just the second man after Bob Paisley (Liverpool 1977, 1978 and 1981) to win the European Cup three times, having done so with AC Milan in 2003 and 2007.

Such is Madrid’s obsession with winning a 10th European Cup, the result on Saturday will either see Ancelotti hailed as a hero for finally delivering “La Decima” or possibly fighting for his job having also missed out on La Liga in recent weeks.

ATLETICO MADRID

GOALKEEPERS

13. Thibaut Courtois (BEL)

Courtois has spent the last three seasons in the Spanish capital on loan from Chelsea and has quickly become one of the world’s best goalkeepers at just 22 years of age.

The Belgian number one has kept 28 clean sheets in all competitions this season.

1. Daniel Aranzubia (ESP)

The veteran Aranzubia has played a small part in Atletico’s 12-match unbeaten run in the Champions League as he kept goal in the 2-0 win over Porto in the group stages, but will watch on from the bench in Lisbon.

DEFENDERS

2. Diego Godin (URU)

One of many players that were seen as underachieving prior to Simeone’s arrival at the club, Godin has been transformed under the Argentine and not only defended with great authority but also popped up with some vital goals, including the one that sealed the title against Barcelona at the Camp Nou last weekend.

3. Filipe Luis (BRA)

Just as important an outlet going forward from left-back as he is defensively, Filipe Luis has proved particularly important in the two league meetings against Real Madrid this season as he snuffed out the threat posed by Gareth Bale.

20. Juanfran (ESP)

Like Filipe Luis, as well as contributing to European football’s best defence this season, Juanfran has been just as important going forward, most notably in setting up two goals in the semi-final win at Chelsea. Started his career at Real Madrid.

23. Miranda (BRA)

One of the unsung heroes of Atletico’s success, the 29-year-old Brazilian has struck up a great partnership with Godin at the heart of the defence.

MIDFIELDERS

4. Mario Suarez (ESP)

An injury midway through the season has cost Suarez his place in the side to Tiago alongside Gabi despite an excellent start to the season in which he forced his way into the Spanish national team.

5. Tiago (POR)

Another whose nomadic career has been rejuvenated by Simeone. A regular in central midfield, the Portuguese international’s ability to protect his back four has been a key feature of Atletico’s excellent defensive record.

6. Koke (ESP)

A product of the Atletico youth academy, the 22-year-old has had a stellar season which has seen him become not just a regular in Simeone’s set-up but also in the Spanish national squad.
On top of being Atletico’s top creator of goals with 18 assists this season, he has also shown an eye for important goals amongst his tally of seven for the season.

10. Arda Turan (TUR)

The Turkish international is a doubt for Saturday’s clash due to a hip injury and his invention would be sorely missed in a midfield full of physical prowess but sometimes lacking in creativity. Turan has also been Atletico’s second top goalscorer in the Champions League with four in just seven starts.

14. Gabi (ESP)

Another product of the Atleti youth academy, Gabi has been an inspirational captain in leading the side to the Liga title and the brink of a first Champions League crown. Moreover, the 30-year-old, who is in his second spell with the club after a time with Real Zaragoza, has played more minutes than any other Atletico outfield player this season.

26. Diego (BRA)

Re-signed by the club in January, Diego has more than played his part in Atletico’s Champions League run with a wonder strike which handed Los Rojiblancos a crucial away goal against Barcelona in the quarter-finals.

24. Jose Sosa (ARG)

A favourite of Simeone’s having also worked with him at Estudiantes in Argentina, Sosa’s set-piece delivery has been an important weapon off the bench since he joined the club on loan from Ukraine’s Metalist Kharkiv in January.

FORWARDS

7. Adrian Lopez (ESP)

Adrian repaid the amazing faith Simeone showed in him despite scoring just two goals in 26 appearances before he notched the vital equaliser which turned the game against Chelsea in the second leg of their semi-final.

8. Raul Garcia (ESP)

A converted central midfielder, Garcia’s 17 goals in all competitions this season make him the club’s second top scorer. The Spaniard has proved particularly effective in the air and will offer the physical presence up front should Diego Costa not be fit.

9. David Villa (ESP)

Villa’s work rate has been consistently hailed by Simeone, but he has lost the spark in front of goal that made him Spain’s all-time leading scorer at international level having failed to find the net at all in this season’s Champions League.

19. Diego Costa (ESP)

The side’s top scorer and talisman with 36 goals in all competitions, Brazilian-born Costa looks almost certain to miss the final due to a hamstring injury.

COACH

Diego Simeone (ARG)

Simeone’s conversion of a club in crisis just above the relegation zone to La Liga champions and on the brink of a first Champions League title in two and a half years has been remarkable.

Despite not having the finances to compete with Europe’s elite, Simeone’s motivation and tactical organisation has led Atletico on a 12-game unbeaten run to the final on their first appearance in the competition for four years.

The West Australian

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