The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
5 players to watch when Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid meet in Champions League final
LISBON, Portugal - Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid meet in the first Champions League final that is also a city derby — and only the fifth featuring two teams from the same country.
Both are looking to close their seasons with a double as Madrid vies to follow up its Copa del Rey victory with a record 10th European Cup and Atletico can secure its maiden title in Europe's top competition just a week after winning its first Spanish league trophy in 18 years.
Here are five players who can make the difference on Saturday at the Stadium of Light:
The Real Madrid goalkeeper has overcome being dropped as the first-team goalkeeper in the Spanish league to make the most of his limited playing time. And the 33-year-old Casillas has exceeded expectations in a part-time role, leading Madrid not only into Saturday's final but to victory in the Copa del Rey, where he did not allow a goal until the 2-1 final win over Barcelona. Casillas' play in Europe and the domestic cup has cemented his starting place for Spain at the World Cup, and a third European Cup on his resume would certainly add to his stature as Spain's greatest keeper. Casillas has never lost against Atletico.
Atletico Madrid's goalkeeper won his second straight Zamora trophy after conceding the fewest league goals in helping his team to the Spanish league title. The Belgium goalie has flourished in the three seasons he has spent on loan from Chelsea at Atletico, helping the club win five trophies with cat-like reflexes and a penchant for key saves. Saturday's final could be Courtois' last game for Atletico with Chelsea looking increasingly likely to call their keeper of the future back to Stamford Bridge to compete with Petr Cech for the starting job. "Courtois and (Manchester United's) David De Gea are the best and most promising young goalkeepers in the game," Casillas said of his counterpart.
No player will be as motivated as Cristiano Ronaldo, who has finally guided Real Madrid back to the Champions League final for the first time in 12 years — and in his native Portugal to boot. Ronaldo joined Manchester United from Sporting Lisbon, and guided the English club to a European Cup win in 2008 before losing to Barcelona a year later in Rome. Despite some recent injury setbacks, Ronaldo can cap perhaps his most complete season, which has already seen him win the Ballon d'Or. The 29-year-old Ronaldo has scored 50 goals this season, and will be looking to add to his record 16 scored in the Champions League this campaign.
Barcelona playmaker Xavi Hernandez labeled Jorge "Koke" Resurreccion his heir apparent on the Spain national team, and the Atletico midfielder is proving him right after helping his boyhood club to its first Spanish league title in since 1996, when he was four. Striker Diego Costa has garnered much of the headlines about Atletico's success but none of it would have been possible without the aid of Koke, who seems to be involved in nearly every one of Atletico's goals from open play or set pieces. Koke can also score himself, and netted the deciding goal in the quarterfinal win over Barcelona.
The world's most expensive player has certainly delivered in his first season at Madrid despite a season marred by occasional injury worries and the lofty expectations that came with a 100-million-euro ($137 million) transfer. The addition of Bale has turned Madrid's attack into Europe's most explosive, as Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Bale combined for 95 goals this season. Bale's memorable winner in the 2-1 Copa del Rey final against Barcelona will certainly be among the season's best, and has enamoured him with the club's fans. His size, speed, and dribbling ability will test Atletico's defence, which was the best in Spain this season.
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