No complaints when Atletico, Real Madrid renew their hostilities
The fifth Madrid derby, Atletico vs. Real Madrid, arrives this weekend (live, Saturday, 10 a.m. ET) with a clash of cymbals, a roll of drums at the Estadio Vicente Calderon. Familiarity does not stagnate this particular confrontation. Nor does the fact that it has been coming around so often in recent months devalue its status.
The champions of Europe go to the home of the champions of Spain, seven points between them in the table, with Atletico, in third place, trailing the league leaders by a gap that if it extends to 10 points by the end of the contest, would suggest their chance of retaining their La Liga crown has shifted from tricky to very remote. "We have a slight advantage," said Carlo Ancelotti of his club's four-point lead over second-place Barcelona, and the thick cushion between the two Madrid giants.
What Real Madrid do not have is the momentum of recent precedent. Atletico have been Ancelotti's ogre in the year and half since he has been in charge, at least in La Liga, and they have been his trip-wire again and again since August. When they met in the Spanish Super Cup, the season's curtain-raiser between the La Liga and Copa del Rey holders, they drew one leg and Atletico won the other to lift that prize. In the first La Liga derby of the campaign, Atletico won 2-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Then came the two-legged Copa del Rey tie for a place in the quarterfinals, last month. Atletico confidently eliminated the holders 4-2 on aggregate. "The last two Cup games we did not perform very well," acknowledged Ancelotti, "but we are in a different point in the season now. I'm convinced we will give a good showing."
It is a month since Real's 22-match run of successive victories came to an end -- slotted into the time without a fixture against Atletico -- with the defeat against Valencia. In that time, some testing problems have confronted the calm, commanding figure of Ancelotti; injuries; suspensions and carless goals conceded. And Atletico's ambush on Real in the Copa del Rey -- they continued a habit of early goals against their neighbors, with Fernando Torres scoring within a minute of kickoff in each half of the drawn first leg -- reminded the head coach that Real over the last three years Real have looked as vulnerable against Atletico as against any opponent, domestic or foreign.
Or at least they have on most of the occasions they have met in the Spanish capital. Ancelotti slipped in a little reminder of what happened last May in Lisbon to his prematch comments on Friday. "I may end up looking back on a match against Atletico as the greatest night of my career," he pointed out of this rivalry. He meant the last Champions League final, when his team came back from 1-0 down to force extra-time against Atletico and win club soccer's most prestigious prize 4-1.
Tempers flared at the end of that encounter. This next derby will have its challenging moments for referee Fernandez Borbalan. Atletico's tenacity, pressing and physical power have been a major part of the story of their ascendency in La Liga derbies in the period since Diego Simeone became their head coach.
"We are not frightened of them but we know clearly they have certain strengths, and are one of the best teams in the world," said the Real coach. Height concerns Ancelotti especially, "We have suffered because they have taller players overall than we do." Simeone's set-piece drills are meticulous, thorough and a regular source of goals.
Ancelotti's task is to prepare a Real without their big, combative central defenders for the power of Mario Madzukic, the Atletico center-forward, the aerial impact from attacking corners and free-kicks of Diego Godin, and the speed of Antoine Griezmann. With Pepe and Sergio Ramos, who has just learned he will be out for up to six weeks, injured, the heart of Real's defense will be formed by Raphael Varane, 21, and Nacho, who has started just two La Liga matches so far in 2014-15.
With Marcelo suspended, Luka Modric and James Rodriguez injured, Ancelotti is obliged to dilute his ideal starting XI even further. And this is a coach with a firm idea of his best XI. The consolation, for which Real are still thankful, is the availability of Cristiano Ronaldo, who has served a two-match suspension for his red card and loss of control against Cordoba.
The World Player of the Year should anticipate some tests of his temperament at the Calderon, some moments when he is being booed and jeered by 60,000 people. Simeone wants to the noise of Aletico's loyalists from the first seconds, that opening period of the derby that he has found so productive. He wants an Atletico whose energy intimidates Real.
"We are an intense team," said the Atletico coach. "That's the way we know, and we are not going to change. We battle, we're strong and we're intense on the counter-attack. Long may that continue."