Battered Real Madrid face tough test vs. rival Atletico in second leg
An unexpected silence came over Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday night. Only four minutes had been played of the match against Malaga, a 3-1 victory that turned out more of a sweat than Madrid would have liked, when the first costly setback impacted on supporters. Gareth Bale was down, in pain, clutching his calf.
Bale took no further part and will almost certainly miss Wednesday's second leg of the UEFA Champions League quarter-final against Atletico Madrid (live, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go, 2:45 p.m. ET). There is a section of the Real support-base who may well regard Bale's absence with ambivalence; they may be a minority but at stages of the season, they have been a vocal fringe group, jeering Bale and groaning when he has misplaced a pass, or shot instead of laying the ball off to a colleague. No Bale means a likelier starting place for Isco. Isco has a strong fan-base. He may not have the speed, athletic strength and finishing of the Welsh flyer, but he approaches the tasks of recuperating lost possession with more obvious vigor than Bale.
Nonetheless, Real would evidently prefer to try to build on the goalless stalemate of the tie's first 90 minutes at the Vicente Calderon with the zippy runs of Bale as an option. And if a survey seeking conformation of that from madridistas might not summon 100 percent agreement, a poll about how important Luka Modric is to the functioning of a side that prefers attack over defense would come up with a landslide agreement. Modric is the metronome of Madrid's midfield; he is not only Bale's greatest ally as a supplier of calibrated passes, but appreciated by all other members of the front six for his precision and poise. The backline likes Modric too, for his sixth-sense in his positioning, his maturity and his reading of the opposition's intentions.
There will be no Modric against Atletico. He departed the Malaga contest, injured, after an hour. Before the night was over the diagnosis was known and it was gloomy: ligament damage to the right knee, and an "adios" to all but the very last chapter of the season. Modric will be out for around six weeks, which limits his target for any further participation in a campaign in which Real are two points off the lead in La Liga, and seeking to defend their European title to a slim possibility he might be better for the Champions League final, should Real make it.
To do so, Real have to buck the general form of the last seven derbies against Atletico, which have yielded four Atletico wins, and three draws. Carlo Ancelotti, the Madrid head coach who has found himself stuck in a rut of barren encounters with his neighbors over the 11 months since Real beat Atletico in the last Champions League final in Lisbon, described the 0-0 at the Calderon last week as "the best outcome of the possible bad results."
What he meant is that, yes, the tie is still winnable, with a moment of magic. The downside is that, with away goals counting double, Atletico's counter-attacking effectiveness suddenly has extra venom. A goal on the break early might panic Real, and a Real without Modric, their lucky Luka, might be just that bit more fragile.
"The characteristics of the players that will come in are not the same," Atletico boss Simeone said on Tuesday. "That alerts you to the enthusiasm those that will replace them will play with, but not much changes for us. We just need to look for a way to cause them problems."
Two of the losses so far this season against Atletico featured Modric-free Real lineups, the Croatian international having missed a long period with injury between November and early March. In December, he was subject of sympathy but no deep nostalgia, because Real kept winning. But once the team's long winning run shuddered to a halt in the new year, the idea of Modric as talisman grew. Ask madridistas about his value and they will list the alternatives in his position as part of the answer. None inspire. Sami Khedira, the German World Cup winner, is clearly out of favor and probably preparing to depart Real; Asier Illaremendi has little of Modric's creative spark and Luca Silva, the Brazilian newcomer is just a 21-year-old newcomer.
Ancelotti had already been planning for part two of the Spanish capital's so-called Euroderby without a full-strength side. Marcelo is suspended, which means Fabio Coentrao's promotion at left back. The Portugal international has his strengths, but a combined loss of Bale and Marcelo reduces the flair on the flanks of Real.
Better news is that Ancelotti expects Karim Benzema, who missed the Malaga match with a light injury, to be ready for Wednesday, and 24 hours after Bale withdrew from the pitch, the coach was still not ruling him out. Atletico, for their part, will be without the suspended Mario Suarez in midfield, though they have potential replacements -- Thiago, or Raul Garcia -- with some of the same qualities of pugnacity and authority.
"Atletico are an intense team who are good at the back and are a unit," James Rodriguez told Real Madrid's official website. "There's always pressure here. You have to know how to handle it. We're going to give everything to be able to win La Undecima. We're all dreaming of getting through this round, and if I can score too that'd be great. What's important is winning and getting through this tough match, which is going to be difficult, but we're here at our home stadium and in front of our fans. I think it could be a great match."
Similarly, Ancelotti has urged the Bernabeu public to put on their best voice. A few groans and whistles were heard on Saturday, as Real stuttered at 2-1 ahead against Malaga, before Cristiano Ronaldo scored his 50th goal of the season, across competitions, to provide the late third goal. "We suffer together and we enjoy together. The crowd will be with us," Ancelotti ordered.
Derby form, meanwhile, and fortune with fitness, seem to be leaning against them.