Madrid — La Liga leader Real Madrid goes into Sunday’s Spanish capital derby looking to make a potentially decisive move in the title race, while host Atletico really needs a win at its Estadio Vicente Calderon to keep its unlikely challenge from fading away.
A few weeks ago, ahead of the two side’s Copa del Rey semifinal clashes, it seemed the momentum was swinging in the city. Atletico had won the previous two derbies, and was leader of the Primera Division standings after Christmas for the first time since the mid-1990s.
But Ancelotti’s side were much stronger over those two ties and sailed through 5-0 to April’s final against Barcelona. And its superb recent league form has also seen Los Blancos take a three point advantage over both Atletico and Barca in the table.
Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti suggested to Canal Plus that Real Madrid’s confidence had dipped in the autumn but it was now flying again and ready to win trophies this season.
"Losing the derby at home to Atletico was a blow," Ancelotti said. "These games we played in the Copa have given us more confidence. We have worked for seven months to build a good solid base. We have built the house, now we have to decorate it."
Proud Atletico fans argued after that exit that the Copa was never a priority for their side, which soon showed its mettle with a gutsy 1-0 win in the Champions League at AC Milan. But then Simeone’s men fell to a shock 3-0 defeat at Osasuna in La Liga last weekend.
Los Colchoneros remain right in the title race, just three points behind Madrid. But most accept that defeat on Sunday — and falling six points behind — would realistically end its title aspirations. Diego Costa — the hero in September’s Atletico 1-0 win at Madrid — told AS that he was eagerly awaiting Sundayâs game and the chance to reel in Madrid again.
"I really want to play this game," he said. "I have been really looking forward to it for a while. We know that we need to win to stay in the [title] battle. We will fight as if it were the last game."
Such grit and determination stood out during September’s win at the Bernabeu, but Madrid’s stars rolled their sleeves up and matched their neighbors for aggression during the two recent Copa games. That gave the platform for its greater attacking prowess to decide the tie.
Los Blancos were even more impressive when smashing Schalke 6-1 away in Europe last Wednesday, with attackers Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo grabbing two goals each as the Germans were swiped aside.
That trident, dubbed "the BBC" by the Spanish press, now has a whopping 70 goals between them this season, making it the highest scoring front-line in all European football. Meanwhile, Madrid’s defense has tightened up too this calendar year, conceding in just three of 14 games in all competitions.
Ancelotti has plenty of options on the bench to freshen up his side for the return to domestic action, such as emerging starlet Jese Rodriguez or tough fullback Alvaro Arbeloa. But he suggested after Wednesday’s game that changes would be minimal for Sunday.
"There could be changes, but it is not easy to change when you play like this," the Italian admitted. "I hope we can repeat [Wednesday] game on Sunday."
Atletico’s XI is less predictable, with Simeone having changed his system slightly in recent weeks to try and incorporate Brazilian playmaker Diego Ribas, bringing more guile in attack, but less solidity in defense. The Argentine coach will likely return to a more solid approach on Sunday by benching Diego, and the off-form David Villa, with the athletic Raul Garcia preferred alongside Costa in attack.
Young midfielder Koke told reporters after training on Thursday that he and and his teammates had not been intimidated by Madrid’s phenomenal performance at Schalke.
"Madrid played a great game in Germany, but on Sunday it will be different," Koke said. "It is very good in defense and in attack it has great individuals. But nobody is invincible. We will approach the game as if it was a final, as we always do."
Atletico’s title ambitions could end here, or they could pull themselves right back into the race. A win for Madrid would be another huge step towards regaining the trophy. Onlooking Barcelona supporters would be happiest with a draw. 90 minutes at the Calderon on Sunday will likely go a long way to deciding this season’s La Liga champion.