25 May 2014

Real Madrid, la Decima, and Arsenal's ambition

What a thrilling, heart-breaking, epic final that was. Though the outcome probably surprised no one, there was a full 90 minutes when it looked as if Atlético would stand at the very pinnacle of European football for the first time in its history. A squad cobbled together with journey-men, loans, never-were's, and might-be's hadn't just pushed the galácticos to the brink, they were seconds away from shoving those overpriced mercenaries off a cliff. It would a glorious result, not just for Atléti but for football itself. By defeating Real, Atléti might also defeat the idea that reckless spending paves a path to glory. Sadly, however, shorn of Costa and exhausted in the waning minutes, Atléti couldn't hold out against Real's relentless assault as goals from Ramos, Bale, Marcelo, and Ronaldo sealed a 10th Champions League title. However, there's still something in this saga for us to study.

This is, after all, an Arsenal site, and I only watch other clubs' matches to see what I can glean from them as far as tactics to prepare for and players to pursue. In the first case, it's unlikely that we'll face either club any time soon, so I can sit back and watch. In the second case, for example, will Benzema convince me that we should sign him? From this match, no. We haven't really been linked with many other players other than Di María, so, again, I could watch for the pure pleasure of it. As mentioned above, there were 90 minutes that promised ecstasy...if Atléti could just hold off. It's not enough to have to battle a squad as stocked with ruthless talent as Real's; Atléti also had to fight a clock that seemed to never quite stop. To see Ramos nab the equalizer in extra time wasn't just demoralizing; it was devastating. From there, Atléti never seemed to recover.

However, what's in it for Arsenal? How do we escape the seemingly unavoidable conclusion that we must spend profligately in order to compete with Man City and Chelsea? After all, each of them has poached from none other than Atléti—Agüero to City and, in all likelihood, Costa to Chelsea. Real, of course, is the gold-standard for what money can buy. If we're going to close the yawning gap between us and our rivals, we're going to have to spend like it's going out of style.

Then again, Atléti did just show that it's not necessary to break the bank, and they did so for far more than 90 minutes. They won La Liga, besting not just Real Madrid but also Barcelona, and they destroyed Chelsea to get to the Champions League final before finally succumbing to Real. They did all of that on a shoe-string; Real's roster might be seven times more-expensive than Atléti's. Were it not for a generous allotment of extra time from Björn Kuipers, we might all be hailing one of football's biggest David and Goliath stories in history, and on one of football's biggest stages at that.

On its surface, one might look at the scoreline and assume, 'well, that proves it once again. The rich get richer; the poor get the picture.' After all, a 4-1 final seems to prove that Real Madrid had thoroughly outclassed and overwhelmed their poorer rivals. However, that misses the preceding process: Atléti looked like they were set to win this thing, and the wheels only came off in the last 10 minutes when, exhausted physically and emotionally, they faded in the face of Real's relentless, remorseless pursuit of la Decima. By the time Marcelo dribbled into the heart of Atléti's defense, it was agonizingly clear that those defenders could barely move. By the time Ronaldo "earned" a spot-kick in the game's waning seconds, it felt like a group of bullies were simply adding insult to injury.

For as glorious as the madridistas might have felt, there have to be nagging questions: what if Kuiper hadn't gifted them six minutes of stoppage time or shown seven yellow cards to Atléti? What if Diego Costa had been able to play more than nine minutes? For a club that has enough money to buy everything, they certainly did receive a fair few gifts along the way. No one can take away what Real Madrid has accomplished, but there will always be an asterisk attached to it, at least in my mind.

As we look ahead to the summer, the clamor around spending all 100m in our war-chest, if not more, it's well-worth heeding the reminder that Atléti has offered. No, they didn't quite pull it off, but they came close enough to prove that a club need not sell its soul to achieve its dreams. None of this is to say that we stand pat this summer, but it does suggest that we can hew closer to certain ideals that have made this club so special and build on the success of our season.

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