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A Real chance for No. 10 in Madrid

Atletico battles history in fight for continent title

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La Decima and horse placenta: they are the buzzwords of today's Champions League final in which Real Madrid, the initial romancers of the European Cup, will look to win a 10th continental title at the expense of Atletico Madrid, who have gone to extremes to expedite the recovery of their most important player.

"La Decima is not an obsession," remarked Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti in his Tuesday press conference. "It is a great motivation. We have such a big opportunity to go down in the history of this club."

It's a history tied more at Madrid than anywhere else to the European Cup.

Prior to the tournament's first instalment during the 1955-56 season, Los Blancos were hardly a Spanish football power, and two of their four domestic titles (Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao and even Atletico Madrid had at least as many championships at the time) had come since 1954.

But the arrival of Santiago Bernabeu as club president had seen the capital side transformed into a powerhouse, and as the Spanish Civil War veteran (he fought on the side of the Nationalists as part of the famed Blue Division) added one superstar after another to the ranks, Real Madrid began to collect European Cups as if they were stickers.

The teams of Alfredo Di Stefano, Miguel Munoz, Francisco Gento, Raymond Kopa and, later, Ferenc Puskas won the first five tournaments, and a sixth, with Munoz as the coach, was claimed in 1966.

But the club would have to wait until 1998 for a seventh, although an eighth in 2000 and ninth in 2002 seemed to indicate the 10th -- La Decima -- was just around the corner.

"We will win La Decima," crowed current Madrid president Florentino Perez after a side including the likes of Fernando Hierro, Luis Figo, Raul and Zinedine Zidane had beaten Bayer Leverkusen in Glasgow. "And, he continued, La Undecima -- an 11th -- and many more."

Nearly 12 years on, Real Madrid are still searching for that elusive 10th. And if Ancelotti thinks it isn't an obsession, he's profoundly mistaken.

"I have already learned how to say 'La Decima'," remarked forward Gareth Bale upon completing his transfer to the Spanish capital in September.

It's a term, taught by Perez to the players like a teacher to schoolchildren, that has become part of Madrid culture -- something it will continue to be until that 10th European Cup is hoisted overhead.

If it's not accomplished in Lisbon on Saturday it will be because Real's local rivals, Atletico Madrid, have succeeded in winning La Primera.

Champions of Spain this spring for the first time in 18 years, Atletico have never won the European Cup or modern Champions League -- their only appearance in a final ending in defeat to Bayern Munich in 1974.

But they have also yet to lose in the competition this season despite a difficult knockout schedule that included match-ups against AC Milan, Barcelona and Chelsea.

In three of Atletico Madrid's most recent Champions League contests Diego Costa found the back of the net for his side, and two of his goals -- against Milan and Chelsea -- proved to be match-winners away from home.

Costa, who has so far scored 36 goals in all competitions in 2013-14, is a powerful, combative forward who embodies the feisty persona of manager Diego Simeone. But he has also been battling persistent stress injuries late in the campaign, and earlier this week he travelled to Belgrade for treatment from "traditional healer" Mariana Kovacevic.

Given that he suffered a hamstring strain only a week ago in a match against Barcelona, Costa should never have been fit to play Saturday's final. Kovacevic, however, applied a horse placenta ointment to the 25-year-old, and on Thursday he took part, however briefly, in a training session.

Atletico is desperate for Costa to play at least a part in Lisbon, and they are also sweating over the fitness of midfielder Arda Turan, who has a pelvic injury.

Real Madrid, meanwhile, could be without defender Pepe (calf), but they know they'll have to make do without the suspended Xabi Alonso.

Still, it's Atletico Madrid for whom injuries and questionable treatments are the primary storylines heading into today's match. The narrative for Real Madrid is nothing less than the crushing weight of history. Twitter @JerradPeters

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 24, 2014 C10

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