LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Atletico Madrid’s players are ready to follow coach Diego Simeone. So far, he’s leading them to exactly the places they want to be.
“He’s like a god for us. He arrived to the club and he changed everything. What he says to us comes true,” Atletico midfielder Tiago Mendes said Friday. “We follow him, so if he asks us to go and jump from the bridge, we jump.”
Simeone has been the guiding force behind Atletico’s success this season, which already includes a Spanish league trophy.
It could add the Champions League title when it plays Real Madrid on Saturday, the first Champions League final between city rivals. Captain Gabi Fernandez calls this the most important match in the club’s history. Atletico is playing in just its second European Cup final and first in 40 years.
“More than ever we have the belief in ourselves as it has gotten us all the way to this point,” Atletico midfielder Raul Garcia said.
Simeone credits the players with making him a better coach.
“I found a group of players that has allowed me and my coaching staff to improve,” Simeone said from the Stadium of Light. “The most difficult thing you can do as a coach or player is to transmit what you hope to achieve to your players. We’ve managed that.”
The bond Simeone shares with his players is obvious to opponents.
“There’s a chemistry between Simeone and the players that is very, very good and unique,” Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said. “That’s why they won the league. He’s done fantastic work.”
Simeone’s message since his arrival just more than two seasons ago has been about teamwork, unity, and humility. His confidence in his players is unflinching, and the team’s ability to adjust has been impressive.
“Whether people like him or not, he has made us winners,” Gabi said. “He instilled belief in us, that we can win, and he has made us better.”
Atletico hadn’t beaten Madrid in 14 years before Simeone finally managed the feat at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium last season to win the Copa del Rey. Atletico won again at Madrid in league play, but Simeone expects an entirely different opponent Saturday from the team that struggled early in the season.
“It’s not the same Madrid team now,” said Simeone, who is looking to become only the third non-European coach to win the European Cup. “Today they are much more competitive, they work harder. … Madrid is a very complete team.”
Cristiano Ronaldo seems ready to lead Real Madrid’s attack. He is the competition’s record scorer with 16 goals. He missed Madrid’s final league match last weekend to rest a leg muscle injury.
“Cristiano doesn’t have any problems,” Ancelotti said. “He has trained well.”
Ancelotti, however, has some doubts about Ronaldo’s strike partner, Karim Benzema, and defender Pepe. They have not trained this week because of hamstring and calf injuries.
Madrid’s vaunted forward line — the so-called BBC of Gareth Bale, Benzema and Cristiano — has produced 26 goals in this Champions League season.
Benzema has thrived between the two speedy wingers. Ancelotti, though, plays down the significance of the France forward, or any one player, in a game featuring teams that have met four times already this season.
“Benzema has had a great season and I don’t know that we are losing him,” the coach said.
Atletico has injury concerns about star forward Diego Costa, the Brazilian-born Spain international. He had horse placenta treatment on his right thigh this week. Fluid derived from a horse’s placenta is said to repair damaged cells.
“If Diego Costa is there or (Arda) Turan or any other, well, that’s no problem as far as I am concerned,” Real defender Sergio Ramos said. “What concerns me is Karim, Pepe, Cris, who have been injured in these past few days.”
AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar contributed to this report.
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