Despite stuttering in recent weeks and dropping off the pace in La Liga, Atletico Madrid can take heart in the fact that they have shifted the landscape of El Derbi before tomorrow’s Champions League quarter-final first leg.
El Derbi is, now, comfortably the second biggest fixture in Spanish football behind El Clasico. Unlike the see-sawing nature of the Barcelona and Real Madrid rivalry however, Madrid’s derby was, for a very long time, just short of a no contest.
It was a fixture that Rojiblancos once saw as unwinnable – with not a single victory between 1999 and 2013 – but there is now no disputing that they have the edge.
Six meetings this season: four wins, two draws, zero losses. Not once have Real Madrid faced Atletico and come out on top in 2014-15.
And now they meet again in the knockout stages of the Champions League, where Atleti have the opportunity to avenge their heartbreaking loss in Lisbon in the final of last season’s competition.
Diego Simeone’s side are notoriously well-drilled and difficult to break down and on top of not suffering defeat to their neighbours in any of their match-ups in La Liga, the Copa Del Rey or the Spanish Super Cup this season, Atleti have kept six clean sheets in their last seven European fixtures and are undefeated in 19 of their last 21 in the Champions League.
Even with the losses of Filipe Luis and Thibaut Courtois at the beginning of this season, Simeone has maintained the high standards set by last season as Atleti have proven to be the continent’s most impressive side defensively, shutting out some of the best teams in Europe this season – most notably their cross-town rivals and reigning European and World Club Champions on several occasions.
No other team in Spain has managed to nullify this incarnation of Real like Atleti have, and their 4-0 drubbing back in February was the biggest defeat suffered by Los Blancos since the infamous 5-0 at the hands of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2010. Not even the Catalans have been able to blunt the Real attack like Simeone and his troops, and Barcelona were perhaps rather fortunate to come out with the three points when they met at the end of last month.
Real were restricted to only four shots in the last Madrid Derby at the Vicente Calderon – with only one on target – compared to the hosts’ 17 – with eight on target – as Simeone’s side turned in perhaps their most disciplined performance of his tenure. Flooding the midfield saw Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira overrun and when Cristiano Ronaldo eventually did see some ball he was quickly closed down and double-teamed, rendering the Portuguese forward little more than useless.
Atleti have a way of turning the contest into a physical battle from the first whistle, dictating the style of play to a game that suits them. Presumably it will be a similar plan this time around, and Carlo Ancelotti’s side need to be prepared to match the likes of Diego Godin, Koke, Gabi and Mario Mandzukic in a way that they didn’t last time out.
James Rodriguez, Gareth Bale and Sergio Ramos are all expected to start after varying lengths of time out recently, with the latter two also missing the last derby in February, while Mandzukic will come back in for Fernando Torres for Atleti. Koke, who went off injured early on in the 4-0 will also start, and will offer that familiar threat from set-pieces.
Most importantly though it is the mental edge Atleti now hold over their rivals that will be the biggest asset in this two-legged affair. For 20 years they merely made up the numbers against Real, but the start of Simeone’s time in charge saw that change from a defeatist attitude to a feeling of belief that they could win. Now, they don’t just believe they can win, they know they can win.
Atleti have not been in the best form lately, with Antoine Griezmann – who has scored four in his last three league matches – saving the Rojiblancos on several occasions, but there is no doubt they have had an eye on this tie for some time, for there is no better taste than that of a derby victory; and it’s a taste that they’re now used to.