Copa del Rey

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Atletico challenging Real domination

Diego Simeone pleased to hit La Liga summit
Diego Simeone pleased to hit La Liga summit
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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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Wednesday’s Copa del Rey semifinal derby first leg at Real Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabeu could confirm the tilting of the soccer balance in the Spanish capital. For the first time in decades, Atletico Madrid go into the tie as equals, or even favorites in many eyes.

After going 14 years without a win over their neighbors in any competition, at any ground, Atletico have now won on their last two visits to the Bernabeu, including last season’s 2-1 extra time Copa final victory against Real. The supposed lowly neighbors are also now three points clear of both Real (and Barcelona) at the head of the Primera Division table.

Both Madrid teams are currently in flying form -- Real are unbeaten in 21 matches, but Atletico have not tasted defeat for 23. Local sports newspaper Marca betrayed (probably unwittingly) the apprehension among Blancos fans when it labelled their keeper Iker Casillas the last wall on its cover on Tuesday -- making sure to point out that Casillas had not played in either that Copa final defeat or September’s 1-0 loss to Atletico in La Liga at the Bernabeu.

Blancos coach Carlo Ancelotti was clear at his pregame press conference on Tuesday that his side had improved an awful lot in the four months since that game.

"It is true Atletico have beaten Real Madrid in La Liga, but Madrid have changed a lot," the Italian coach said. "We deserved to lose that game, but tomorrow will be a very different team. We have a lot of confidence now, the team is balanced. To win a derby is really important - for the fans and the club. It is always a really important game."

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Ancelotti’s preparations have been disrupted by the furor over Cristiano Ronaldo’s dismissal during Sunday’s 1-1 La Liga draw at Athletic Bilbao. That red card will not count in this competition. Ronaldo looks set to get a three-game league ban, but will be free to play in the Copa. CR7 will likely be extra-revved up after having gone two derbies scoreless, and being sent off in last May’s final meeting.

Further good news -- perhaps -- for Madrid fans is that €101 million winger Gareth Bale has recovered from his latest thigh injury, although many would prefer to see youngster Jese Rodriguez (two goals in two games while Bale was injured) keeping his spot on the right wing.

Meanwhile, Atletico’s build-up has been overshadowed by an emotional farewell to former club coach -- and legend of Spanish football -- Luis Aragones. The coach was remembered before and after Sunday’s 4-0 La Liga win over Real Sociedad, a game which again showed just how powerful coach Diego Simeone’s side are -- and confirmed that danger man Diego Costa was back in form.

Simeone is definitely without hamstrung forward David Villa for Wednesday’s game, so returning playmaker Diego Ribas looks set for his first start since completing a move just before January’s transfer window shut last weekend. The Brazilian spoke on Monday about how Atletico had changed since his last spell at the club, when he lost both his derbies 4-1.

"When I left we were a very organized side, but now this is a team which is used to winning," Diego said. "Atletico is one of the strongest teams in Europe. It is always difficult to play against Real Madrid, but we are going there to win.”

Simeone might like to further freshen up his side given this is already their tenth game of 2014, but he does not have the resources which Ancelotti can call upon, so changes will be at a minimum. Another worry is the injury to first choice left-back Felipe Luis, which means reserve Emiliano Insua is a potential weak link in defense.

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To celebrate going clear at the top of the league table for the first time since 1996, the Argentine boss brought his players out for a team dinner at the Di Maria restaurant on Monday after training. But he will be keen for his men not to lose focus -- and to remain on the right side of referee Carlos Clos Gomez, the official who sent off both Ronaldo and then-Madrid coach Jose Mourinho during last season’s Copa final.

Whatever happens on Wednesday there will still be the second leg at Atletico’s Estadio Vicente Calderon next midweek, another La Liga meeting in late March, and even a possible Champions League confrontation coming down the line. But Real Madrid know that they really need to win this one - or their long spell as the dominant force in the Spanish capital will be well and truly over.

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