An early goal from Mario Mandzukic took Atletico past 10-man Real Madrid 1-0 on Friday night at the Vicente Calderon to give the reigning league champions their first piece of silverware. With the result, Atletico won the Spanish Super Cup 2-1 on aggregate, and dealt a blow to their arch-rivals’ hopes for a record trophy haul this season.
"It looked like players leaving might make things difficult for us, but we managed to keep the spine of the squad together and keep believing and look where that’s got us," Atletico playmaker Koke told TV reporters after the match. "Now we’ve won a trophy that slipped through our fingers last year."
The result was no less that Atletico deserved. With Gareth Bale looking very out of sorts and Cristiano Ronaldo starting on the bench, this very expensive Real Madrid side looked a bit undercooked. Atletico took full advantage of that, bounding out of the traps and scoring after just two minutes on a very old-fashioned sort of play.
With Antoine Griezmann and Mario Mandzukic playing like a true strike combo, Atletico combined to blow a long outlet from goalkeeper Miguel Angel Moya through Iker Casillas. Moya sent up a long ball that Rafael Varane didn’t handle well, heading it back towards his own net. Griezmann flicked it on, and Mandzukic took it in stride to power it low and hard into the net down the gut.
The goal shocked Real, but as Atletico tried to get the game into the kind of physical grind they enjoy, Los Blancos started to switch the point of attack, moving away from Bale and letting young James Rodriguez carry the load. Rodriguez, who looked far sharper on Friday than he had mid-week, made an impression immediately, blowing a shot right through Moya on the 25th minute that zipped right across the face of an unguarded net.
The turning point came just moments later, when Diego Simeone was shown a red card and ordered to the stands. Angered over the referee’s refusal to allow Juanfran back onto the field after he took a knee to the mouth from Fabio Coentrao, he slapped the back of the fourth official’s head. There’s only one way that situation goes, and while the Vincente Calderon crowd applauded their coach, Atletico struggled noticeably without their manager prowling the sideline.
Rodriguez would head the ball wide again on the 35th minute, then Bale would make one of the misses of the evening. Collecting a square ball from Rodriguez on the edge of the area, he skated through two backs and then fired — but dragged his shot wide. It was an uncharacteristic miss from the Welsh star, but appropriate to his performance on the night: Oddly muted.
Raul Garcia and Rodriguez would trade near-misses as the half ground to a close, and with both teams exiting, you did get the sense that the European champions were in the ascendance.
That proved to be false. After the break, and one imagines with Simeone’s words ringing in his player’s ears, Atletico came out and shut the game down. Cristiano Ronaldo, introduced for Toni Kroos, forced Rodriguez in to a deeper-lying role, reducing his effectiveness entirely. As was the case with Bale, Ronaldo made no impact at all on the game, and one suspects his nagging injury problems played a major part.
Atletico started to pile on the chances, with Garcia missing two fabulous opportunities. First, on 50 minutes, Koke slammed in a free-kick that Garcia put off the crossbar and down behind Casillas. Somehow, the keeper managed to claw the ball away to prevent Garcia from putting in his own rebound near post. Koke then steamed in alone on a breakaway, forcing the only Real Madrid defender having a fine night to make a last-gasp tackle, Daniel Carvajal picking the ball cleanly off his laces.
Five minutes later, Garcia would spin and fire a shot just past Casillas’ left post; Griezmann would then be slotted through but would lose his cool, and put what should have been a free hit on Casillas’ frame well wide.
But Atletico — with Simeone gleefully urging his team and the crowd on from the upper deck at the Vicente Calderon — would grind out the win in the end. When Modric was shown the exit in stoppage time for collecting a second card for a professional foul, the writing was on the wall and Ronaldo could be seen staring at the turf despondently. Rodriguez looked almost close to tears on the final whistle. And over at the Santiago Bernabeu, there may be one or two men worrying about their neighbors again this year.
It’s hard not to think that this result signals that despite the departure of some key players. This Atletico Madrid side will continue to be a force to be reckoned with in Spanish football. For certain, it’s the Fuente Neptuno which will host the celebration. The Cibeles will lie empty.