Liverpool's involvement in the Champions League finally returns next season for the first time since the 2009-2010 season. Next season's defending champion will come from the city of Madrid and it will be the first time in the history of the competition where two teams from the same city will contest the final. Sevilla made the Europa League final in dramatic circumstances so three out of the four European finalists hail from Spain. Impressive. Atlético Madrid top La Liga and face a Real Madrid side in pursuit of 'La Décima' - a tenth European Cup/Champions League.
Diego Simeone's squad is a tight, closely knit one that has progressed extremely far into all competitions with great success. A Champions League final is an achievement of monumental significance for a club in the shadow of its city neighbours and rivals but the form in La Liga is just as noteworthy. El Cholo needs to pick up wins away to Levante and at home to Malaga for his players to be crowned La Liga kings. It will be the first La Liga title for the Madrid club since 1996. Liverpool are also experiencing a league season of genuine renewal ahead of rivals with deeper pockets but Atléti have lost only five times all season in domestic competitions and are unbeaten in Europe. Their season is bordering on legendary. In the Copa del Rey Atlético lost both home and away to Real Madrid in the semi finals and away defeats in La Liga arrived at Espanyol, Almeria, and Osasuna respectively. That's it for defeats and that includes individual knock-out legs across cup competitions.
Diego Simeone's squad isn't too deep and on most occasions, the team picks itself. The human wall known as Thibaut Courtois lines up in goal behind an organised back four of Juanfran, Diego Godín, Miranda, and Filipe Luis. Arda Turan, Gabi, Tiago, and Koke usually appear in a midfield four with Diego Costa and David Villa up front. 442, control the space, fight for every ball, display excellent defensive organisation, press effectively, and counter swiftly. It is not easy to play against and it works. Atlético's first choice eleven is as predictable as Liverpool's and Simeone does not have the depth his main La Liga rivals can call upon. There are options are available that mirror Liverpool's. Mario Suárez fits the profile for Simeone in midfield as Joe Allen does Rodgers' midfield while Toby Alderweireld offers the ball playing capabilities Daniel Agger does in central defence. Diego and Adrián are more trusted and valued members of the squad than Iago Aspas and Victor Moses but it is one player that illustrates what Liverpool's squad is missing.
Raúl García. In La Liga, he's made 16 starts and 15 sub appearances to provide nine goals and three assists. In the Champions League, García has scored four and created four in nine starts and two sub appearances. That's a total of 25 starts in those two competitions spread across right midfield (nine appearance/five goals), attacking midfield (six appearances/six goals and three assists), centre forward (six appearances/one goal and two assists), left midfield (two appearances/one assist), and right-sided attacking midfielder (two appearances). Atléti's number eight offers positional flexibility, productivity, and fits Simeone's system perfectly as he's strong in the air, rarely gets his pocket picked, and provides the necessary work-rate to be called a Simeone player. Match-winning goals against Villarreal and Valencia in one nil victories last month have ensured that El Cholo's machine kept on going in La Liga.
Liverpool will be on the hunt for players in the summer but Liverpool don't necessarily need a huge squad to compete, just one that is put together intelligently. The adaptability of Raheem Sterling, Jon Flanagan, and Philippe Coutinho has provided Brendan Rodgers with greater options than he thought he possibly had at when the season kicked off. Of course, specialists will be required to add to a group of thirteen to fifteen outfield players depending on your appraisal of the merits of Kolo Touré, Lucas Leiva, Glen Johnson, and José Enrique. Liverpool need to build a squad but Atlético Madrid and the 27 year-old Raúl García may have shown Liverpool the way forward. Perhaps this is the thinking behind the reported pursuit of Southampton's Adam Lallana, a player of maturity who fits Rodgers' system and possesses the flexibility to thrive in a number of tactical set-ups.
For well-behaved boys and girls, there have been interesting articles on the value of football possession statistics for winning games (by Jonathan Liew) and the apparent death of tiki-taka (written by the professor of tactical analysis, Jonathon Wilson). Even naughty ones are permitted to take a peek. Marseille should be the place to be for any discerning football hispter because Marcelo Bielsa will manage the French club next season. Ligue 1 just got twice as interesting and Julien Laurens thinks the move is a sensible one. All this talk of tactics and possession just doesn't feel right without Bielsa's name involved somewhere so it's fitting that this appointment comes at the end of a week where Eden Hazard points out that Mourinho's side isn't designed to "play football" and Pep Guardiola's crushing home defeat against Real Madrid made him even more convinced of his philosophy. These managers eh? Whether reactive or proactive, they're a stubborn bunch.
The past week has engineered much debate about the value of possession and managerial tactical tendencies in relation to holding the ball. Liverpool were part of that debate last Sunday in the home defeat to Chelsea but Liverpool's city rivals can soothe open wounds by taking points of Manchester City on Saturday. Everton can close to within a point of Arsenal for the final Champions League spot and put some pressure on Arsène Wenger's team as they play on the following day. Liverpool may benefit from an Everton victory but Everton have something to play for too.
Nota bene: Last night, I had a dream that Everton and Manchester City were drawing one-all with ten minutes to go. On 84 minutes, Manchester City scored and in my disgust, I stopped following the match only to find out later that Roberto Martínez was the most beautiful creature with a receding hairline for it was his powers of motivation that steered Everton to a 3-2 victory. I will not communicate anything further except for two words, Romelu Lukaku.