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Atletico delivers clear-cut message

Atletico Madrid
Diego Costa (L) celebrates his winner for Atletico against Real Madrid on Saturday night.
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Dermot Corrigan

Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for several publications, including FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360°, When Saturday Comes and Iberosphere. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.

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MADRID, SPAIN

POWER RANKINGS

Plenty of room to jump on these bandwagons this weekend.

Atletico Madrid’s richly deserved 1-0 win at near neighbors Real Madrid on Saturday showed Diego Simeone’s hard working and superbly organized side are real challengers for this season’s Primera Division title.

Either Madrid or Barcelona have won each La Liga trophy for a over a decade, but Diego Costa’s winning goal -- and Atletico’s all-round superiority at a damp and ultimately disillusioned Estadio Santiago Bernabeu -- means it is Simeone’s side who now look the main challengers to try and unseat Barca as champions.

The question pregame had been whether Atletico’s Copa del Rey final win at the Bernabeu last May had lifted an inferiority complex which had grown during 14 years and 25 games without a derby win. But Saturday night, it looked as if it was Madrid which was scared of Atletico's physical style.

Blancos boss Carlo Ancelotti blinked by choosing to leave out his main creative midfielder Luka Modric, and start the more limited but physically bigger Sami Khedira and Asier Illarramendi in the center of the park. The Italian then spent most of the first half seated on the bench, probably trying to work out what was going wrong. Meanwhile, Simeone prowled the edge of his technical area, urging his players forward, kicking every ball with them.

The visitors looked the better side throughout -- and its goal on 12 minutes was no surprise. Madrid lost the ball for the umpteenth time in midfield, and seconds later Costa strode through a static home defense to slip the ball confidently past goalkeeper Diego Lopez for his eighth goal in seven La Liga games this season.

Simeone’s guiding influence has turned Costa -- previously always sent out on loan to smaller sides like Albacete or Rayo Vallecano -- into La Liga’s deadliest number nine. The Brazilian-born forward’s form is so good that few are talking about Radamel Falcao at Atletico, and the Spanish media say he will be in Vicente del Bosque’s next full Spain squad.

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Even during their barren run at the Bernabeu, Atletico often scored first in derbies, but then folded pretty quickly. This team made of different stuff though -- as Ancelotti himself has said the current Colchoneros XI are just like their coach -- tough, committed, and full of confidence in their ability to get the job done despite their relatively limited means.

Koke is another player transformed by Simone. Previously a talented but inconsistent player, in the last twelve months he has become a key man for Atletico. Still only 21, the Madrid native has played in Spain’s last three senior internationals, and looks a real star in the making. His pass for Costa’s opener was perfectly measured, earning his sixth assist in seven La Liga goals this season. Another outrageous crossfield ball should really have brought a goal for David Villa too before halftime.

After the break it was time for Atletico’s defense to stand big, and led by teak-tough centerbacks Diego Godin and Miranda it did just that. Cristiano Ronaldo was quiet -- he had scored 7 goals in fortnight since signing his new $26 million-a-year contract but hardly got a sniff here. One trademark free kick went high and wide just when Madrid needed something badly, and another swerving effort was sent straight at visiting keeper Thibaut Courtois.

Ancelotti tried to fix his initial mistake by introducing Modric along with Gareth Bale at the break, and the second half was better. Yet Atletico still had few problems blocking up the spaces Bale and Ronaldo like to run into. Karim Benzema was whistled again by the home fans after another ineffective display, while Bale had just one speculative shot -- straight at Courtois.

Still appearing to badly miss the guile of the departed Mesut Ozil, Madrid ended the game just lumping high balls forward, and Atletico easily saw out the 90 minutes. Los Colchoneros even came close to scoring itself late on, with Koke almost crowning his display with a curling shot which hit the crossbar.

''Atletico was more aggressive and ran more. It wasn't our day,'' said Ronaldo. ''We have to understand that we need to improve. I played poorly and many of my teammates did so as well. Our coach had nothing to do with it. It's our fault.''

There was nothing lucky about the result -- these were not plucky underdogs scrapping their way to an unlikely victory against the odds. Atletico was by far the better team -- and a seventh win from seven league games keeps them level with Barcelona on top of the table, five points ahead of Madrid.

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''We are not playing well. We have to solve this by having a better attitude, staying concentrated, and playing with more speed and pace,'' said Ancelotti. ''It's true that five points behind Barcelona and Atletico isn't a little amount. But that's not the problem.''

During their previous clashes two decades ago in Italy, Ancelotti was a silky passer in a Milan team which won everything, while Simeone was a scrapper in an Internazionale side which stayed in the shadow of its crosstown rivals. Now in the Spanish capital in 2013, their positions have been reversed. Atletico are now the best side in the city -- and look serious challengers for this season’s La Liga title.

''We can play better or worse, but our commitment to working hard is nonnegotiable,'' said Simeone. ''The team is above everything else. The economic power of Barcelona and Madrid is superior to ours. We give it our all in each game.''

And Ancelotti's Madrid? They are in need of a serious rethink.

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