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Atletico battered, but not out vs. Real

Diego Costa
Atletico Madrid faces a tall order against Real Madrid, especially without Diego Costa.
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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

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Atletico Madrid go into Tuesday’s Copa del Rey semifinal return game against Real Madrid at their Estadio Vicente Calderon hoping somehow to overturn a 3-0 first leg deficit, badly in need of something positive to cling to after an awful seven days.

Atletico appear to be playing for pride -- but Simeone’s men have already shown they have that quality in spades -- and are likely to be roared on by a 55,000 capacity Calderon crowd baying for revenge against their once again swaggering rivals from the posher side of town.

Just a week ago Atletico Madrid’s working class heroes were three points clear alone at the head of the Primera Division. But then they were out-fought and out-thought in last Wednesday’s Copa semi first leg at Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, when despite suffering the misfortune of two deflected goals, the visitors were deservedly well beaten.

Even more concerning for Colchoneros coach Diego Simeone was Saturday’s shock 2-0 loss at relegation-threatened Almeria, which means Atletico have slipped from first to third behind Madrid -- who beat Villarreal 4-2 at the Bernabeu, and Barcelona who won 4-1 at Sevilla to retake top spot in the standings.

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The Almeria defeat was extra painful for Simeone’s side -- with reserve goalkeeper Dani Aranzubia at fault for both goals and midfielder Tiago Mendes suffering a serious knee injury. Aranzubia was only playing as regular keeper Thibaut Courtois has a back problem, while Tiago’s injury places him on a casualty list alongside key men David Villa and left back Filipe Luis.

Atletico’s relatively thin squad is now being stretched almost to breaking-point -- just as the season’s decisive stretch begins. Simeone was understandably gloomy, but also defiant, as he faced the press after the game.

“We are not looking for excuses,” he said. “Congratulations to Almeria. We can only keep doing our own jobs. And we will do that.”

The Argentine is now hoping Spain forward Villa and Courtois can both be declared fit for Tuesday’s Copa second leg. Three down, and with nothing to lose, he is expected to name an attacking side, with playmakers Diego Ribas and Arda Turan getting a chance to make up for their unusually subdued showings last week at the Bernabeu. If Villa does not make it, with top scorer Diego Costa suspended, back-up Adrian Lopez will start. But Adrian’s record of just two goals in 26 appearances this season is unlikely to scare Madrid’s defense.

Cristiano Ronaldo will return to Copa del Rey action vs. Atletico. (Photo: Javier Soriano/Getty)

If Simeone is trying hard to accentuate the positive, then his Madrid counterpart Carlo Ancelotti is working on dampening expectations given his team’s three goal advantage, and generally excellent start to 2014.

With Cristiano Ronaldo suspended in La Liga, Gareth Bale starred during Saturday’s entertaining home win over Villarreal, with the Welsh winger scoring the first goal and laying on the second before tiring after the break. Youngster Jese Rodriguez also impressed with another beautifully taken goal, but he looks set for a rest with Bale to continue in the team and Ronaldo free to return at the ground where he scored a memorable hat trick on his last visit in April 2012.

Ancelotti has a few fitness concerns himself, with left backs Marcelo and Fabio Coentrao both being withdrawn early against Villarreal -- but both were back training Monday morning.

In even more positive news for Madridistas, young French defender Raphael Varane is set for his first start since Nov. 9, and looking to prove he has fully recovered from the knee problems which have dogged his season as Pepe and Sergio Ramos [who are both a booking away from being suspended for the final] are likely to step down. Iker Casillas -- yet to concede in seven Copa games this season -- will be back in goal.

The targeting of Costa by defenders Alvaro Arbeloa and Pepe for some rough stuff last week drew criticism, but Ancelotti said after training on Monday that derbies were always hard fought games -- and he would send his team out to battle again Tuesday night.

“We have an important advantage, but to avoid problems we need to show the same attitude and intensity as in the first leg,” the Italian coach said. “Games between teams from the same city are always more intense, more pressurized than others. A really important moment of the season is arriving. We want to play this competition just like all the others.”

Given the first leg scoreline, many in the Spanish capital have already taken as written that Madrid will progress to April 19’s final, with Barcelona also penciled in as rivals for a "Copa Clasico final." That does look the mostly likely outcome -- but a wounded Atletico, backed into a corner, still have a fighters’ chance.

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