Reflecting how Atletico have changed the hierarchy in Madrid

BY Ian Hawkey • January 15, 2015


There are established rules of engagement in a Madrid derby; the count of yellow cards will usually be higher than average; central defenders will bear dark bruises afterwards. And in recent seasons, spectators from both teams, Atletico and Real, have learned a very important rule: Never, ever get to the stadium late. If you do, chances are you'll have missed a goal.

As Atletico on Thursday extended their series of 2014-15 triumphs over Real Madrid by knocking their neighbors out of the Copa del Rey, 2-2 on the night and 4-2 on aggregate, a few patterns were maintained. Pepe, the Real defender limped off, and workers who had struggled to leave the office in time for an 8 p.m. kickoff -- early for an evening match in Spain -- missed the first goal. Those who joined the back of halftime queue for chorizo rolls were also back in their seats too late to witness Atletico's second goal.

Hard to believe, as Atletico celebrated knocking out the holders of the Copa del Rey, that for most of this century these local squabbles only ever had the opposite outcome. From October 1999 to May 2013, Atletico simply could not beat Real. That's almost 14 years, 12 of them sharing the same division, and 25 meetings in which Atletico were never the winners.

A tide turned at the tail-end of the 2012-13 season, when a headed goal -- specialty of the new, muscular, fearless Atletico -- from Miranda in extra-time of the Copa del Rey final, at Real's Santiago Bernabeu stadium provided a resonant Atletico victory. Twelve months later, Atletico were La Liga champions, Real finishing third in the table, and the two clubs were facing each other on the very summit of club soccer, the UEFA Champions League final in Lisbon.

Atletico fans will be reliving, painfully, the last 60-odd seconds of injury-time in that showdown for the rest of their lives. Just over a minute of added time remained when Sergio Ramos headed in a Real equalizer for 1-1. The final went into extra-time, and Real scored three more.

One minute can seem like an age in soccer. So much can happen, the powerful momentum can be blunted, or suddenly revved up. At the Santiago Bernabeu on Thursday, Fernando Torres, making only his second start since rejoining Atletico on loan from AC Milan earlier this month, achieved a great deal in less than one minute. From kickoff, Atletico launched the speedy Antoine Griezmann down the left wing, and Torres, target of Griezman's low cross, leaned into a left-footed volley: One-nil, 3-0 on aggregate. There were just 49 seconds on the referee's stopwatch.

To be blitzed that way once might be considered unfortunate. To be blitzed twice that way in one evening looks careless. For the first goal, perhaps Madrid were distracted. Before kickoff, Cristiano Ronaldo had displayed to the crowd his latest FIFA Ballon d'Or, as World Footballer of the Year. Three others who collected awards at Monday's FIFA gala -- James Rodriguez for having scored the best goal of 2014; Toni Kroos and Ramos for making FIFA's 'Team of the Year' -- showed off their trophies. Barely had their basking stopped than Real were being bounced further away from retaining the Copa del Rey they won last season.

Real did pull a goal back -- a Ramos header, just as in Lisbon -- and peppered the Atletico penalty area with shots to go in at 1-1 at halftime. Yet just 46 seconds after the restart, Griezmann passed to Torres, and the striker deftly turned away from Pepe to score again.

Forty-nine seconds, then even more swiftly, Torres had beaten his own record for sudden impact in the space of an hour. He had also eclipsed Mario Mandzukic's impressive precedent for settling two-legged ties in Madrid derbies very promptly. Mandzukic, the Atletico striker whose bout of flu meant Torres took his place on Thursday, scored in the second minute of the Spanish Super Cup second leg back in August, the goal that decided the destination of that trophy.

This is not casual coincidence. Under the coaching of Diego Simeone, Atletico have evolved a game-plan that does not prioritize sustained possession over 90 minutes, but seeks advantage through intense bursts of pressure, from well-rehearsed counter-attacks. Evidently, he has the idea Real can seem sleepy very early in games. When Atletico won the first La Liga derby of the current campaign, back in September, Thiago scored the opening goal in a 2-1 win after just nine minutes.

In this blitzing, Ronaldo brought the score on the night back to 2-2. But Real still needed three more goals to go through to the quarterfinals. The task was too great. Once again, Atletico had trumped them. Their traveling supporters celebrated vividly in the away seats, a few of them doubtless wondering again why they could not just have made this habit of bettering Real stretch into that 94th minute in Lisbon.

They applauded Torres warmly when he was substituted. His return to the club he grew up with, seven and a half years after he left for Liverpool, has already yielded something special, pushing Real out of the Copa. He has evidently tuned into the style of Simeone's Atletico, and is developing an understanding with the lively Griezmann.

''Scoring so early set us on our way,'' Torres said after the match. ''I'm happy for our fans who have come, and for scoring my first two goals in my return at a ground I had never scored at.''

Torres, better than anybody, can reflect on how far Atletico have altered the hierarchy in the Spanish capital. In his younger years, up until 2007, he played nine Madrid derbies in La Liga, lost five of them, drew four and scored only once against Real. The mature Torres has now doubled that total in less than 50 minutes on the Bernabeu pitch, breaking Madristas' hearts in the process.  

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