The derby tie gives Atletico a chance to move on from last season’s Champions League final agony, while Madrid’s players and fans want to erase memories of their 4-0 La Liga capitulation in February.
Last May’s dramatic Lisbon decider is still well remembered, if in understandably different ways, on either side of the Spanish capital. Atletico were 1-0 ahead deep into injury time, and set for their first Champions League title, until Madrid centre-back Sergio Ramos headed in a dramatic equaliser.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side easily won out 4-1 in extra-time, against mentally and physically exhausted opponents, to claim their long awaited 10th European Cup.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s shirt-off celebration after he had converted a late penalty rubbed extra, unnecessary, salt in the neighbours’ wounds. Since then, however, Diego Simeone’s team have been extra determined — and are unbeaten through six meetings already during the 2014/15 season.
Atletico have overcome Madrid over two legs in both this season’s Spanish Supercopa and Copa del Rey. They’ve also won two La Liga clashes, most recently by four clear goals two months ago. Many local pundits, on both sides, now feel that Simeone now has the upper hand tactically.
With Ancelotti wedded to a galactico-heavy 4-3-3 system, Atletico can flood midfield with numbers and leave the BBC strikeforce of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo marooned up top. That plan has stopped Madrid scoring even once in three visits to the Calderon this season.
Many Madrid-backing reporters would bench Bale and field both in-form creators Isco and James in wide midfield roles in a 4-4-2 shape. But Ancelotti told his pre-match news conference yesterday that attitude, not systems, was all important. “This is different than February, we are fresh now and can play at a high rhythm, with intensity,” the Italian coach said. “Personality and courage are very important in these type of games. It is not about 4-3-3 or 4-4-2.
“It is about being compact, together all the time, in all aspects. Everyone must defend, not just Bale. We must defend with 11 and attack with 11.” Real come into the game in confident mood after three wins in a week, scoring 14 goals and conceding just one, albeit against limited opposition in Granada, Rayo Vallecano and Eibar. This run, along with leaders’ Barcelona’s 2-2 draw at Sevilla on Saturday night brought Ancelotti’s men right back into the La Liga title race.
Ronaldo scoring seven times in seven days, including his first direct free kick in a year, has also buoyed optimism at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. More sceptical onlookers recall Madrid’s form against tougher opponents, especially away from the Bernabeu in 2015. Besides the Calderon, they have also lost at Valencia, Athletic Bilbao and Barca, suggesting it is not just Simeone who has worked out how to stifle the BBC. Atletico also had a rough spell through February and
March, winning just one of the six games after the big victory over Madrid. Simeone’s side did then keep a run of five clean sheets, until gaps again appeared during Saturday’s thrilling 2-2 draw at Malaga. France attacker Antoine Griezmann scored twice for Atletico in that game, meaning he has four goals in his last three games, and 21 this term. Fellow attackers Mario Mandzukic and Fernando Torres have been less effective lately, although Mandzukic is set to start tomorrow after apparently overcoming a tricky ankle injury.
All talk of the past was of no use now, said Simeone yesterday. “Now (last year’s) lost final always comes up,” the Argentine coach said. “Back a while it was us going 14 years without beating them. We just think about tomorrow. The past stays behind us. It is up to us to respond tomorrow, against a great opponent.” Both coaches have been keen to focus on gaining an advantage ahead of next Wednesday’s second leg at the Bernabeu. But local pride, and a lot more, remains at stake.