Derby tests two-horse Liga theory
Atlético travels to the Bernabéu ahead of Real Madrid for first time in 17 years
Every season Atlético Madrid plays Real Madrid twice in the league — except on those occasions when the red-and-white half of the capital is having one of its brief dalliances with Segunda — and every season since the turn of the century the latter has remained unbeaten.
As inexorable as the chill northern air that reaches Madrid around the typical timing of the first encounter is a ripple of optimism emanating from the south: this season, the mantra from the Manzanares river holds that things will be different this Saturday night (Canal+, 10pm).
This season, all matters Liga have already been turned upside down. For the first time since the 1995-96 season, Real finds itself staring up the table at its city rival, which is eight points ahead of Madrid in second. José Mourinho’s side has already lost more games in 2012-13 (three) than it did in the whole of the last term. In 13 matches so far, Atlético has conceded just one more than Real and scored just three fewer. Diego Simeone’s side has hit three or more goals five times in the league; the same frequency as Saturday’s opponent.
Atlético also gave the European champion, Chelsea, a hiding in the Supercup while Real has not fired on all cylinders in continental competition.
More importantly than its exploits at one end — conducted by Arda Turan, Diego Costa and Koke, and usually executed by the goal-hungry Radamel Falcao — is the solidity of Atlético’s back line, formerly as resolute as a blancmange on a washing machine in full spin.
Simeone — in his day a formidable defensive midfielder who can certainly be filed under “robust” — has built his side from the bottom up and in Mario Suárez and Gabi the midfield has more than a little bite.
Still, there is a huge monkey on Atlético’s back that will take some removing. Even as a player Simeone never tasted victory against the club’s arch-rival. Since Mourinho arrived in Madrid, derby matches have given him few headaches. The Portuguese coach has seen his team win four out of four league meetings against Atlético, with the most recent being something of a humbling experience for Simeone and fans feeling optimism at the Argentinean’s initial impact on the team as Cristiano Ronaldo led Real to a 1-4 win in the Vicente Calderón.
Still, it is unquestionable that Simeone’s Atlético project has kicked on considerably since the summer break. Falcao, on the eve of making his first appearance on the Bernabéu turf, summed up the feeling in the Atlético camp, which is to hold a training session on the morning of the game in the Calderón open to its fans. “More than pressure, the derby gives us motivation,” said the Colombian, who has become something of a fixture in third place (with 11 Liga goals so far this campaign) behind Leo Messi and Ronaldo in the scoring charts.
Speaking on Friday, Simeone was keen to remind his charges that the key to any chance of success would be in staying loyal to the disciplined approach he has imposed. “We know we are up against a powerful team with great players; the current Liga champion. [...] We will try to be compact, intense, and not think about individual skills. These must serve the collective objective.”
Real stands 11 points behind league leader Barcelona after defeat at Betis last weekend and any adverse result will spell the effective end of its title defense before the winter break. Real captain Iker Casillas was concise in analyzing the meaning of the fixture: “Anything other than a win is no good for us.”
The pressure on Real may be ramped up even before the game has started with Barcelona to host Athletic Bilbao at 8pm. If Tito Vilanova’s side is victorious — and there is nothing in the form of either team this season to suggest otherwise — Real will find itself 14 points adrift when the ball is rolled off the spot in the Bernabéu. Add a tetchy crowd, which booed pro-Mourinho chants during the midweek King’s Cup match against Alcoyano, and it may be anything but a comfortable evening for the home side.