Atlético up for a Real fight

For the first time in 13 years, we have a Madrid derby that really counts

Every Atlético Madrid supporter knows the date. October 30, 1999, when a Colchoneros side including José Chamot, Rubén Baraja and Radek Bejbl won 3-1 at city rival Real Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabéu thanks to two goals from former Leeds United striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. That night could have been even better for Atlético, if not for some fine late saves from Madrid’s teenage substitute goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, which kept the scoreline at least respectable.

The date sticks in Atlético fans’ heads because they have not beaten their swankier neighbours since. Casillas, now 31, has played 23 more derbies without tasting defeat, with Madrid often having to do little more than wait for Atlético to self-destruct. Last year, at the Bernabéu, Madrid’s fans held up ironic banners saying “Proper rival wanted for a worthy derby”. And few on either side were surprised when, despite going 1-0 ahead early through Adrián López, Atlético crumbled to a 1-4 defeat in one of then coach Gregorio Manzano’s final games in charge.

Crumbling is not something this year’s Atlético, remade in the image of Manzano’s replacement, Diego Simeone, tend to do. In less than a year, Simeone, a tough-tackling midfielder on the last Atlético team to win the La Liga title (in 1995-96), has transformed a disinterested side into the most committed and consistent team in La Liga. After claiming the Europa League trophy last May, and then beating Chelsea 4-1 in August’s European Super Cup, they keep grinding out wins — 18 from their 21 games in all competitions so far this season. They have been well-drilled, efficient, undramatic — exactly what Atlético are not supposed to be.

Casillas admits this year’s clash is likely be closer than recent meetings.

“It is a different derby than previous years, as Atlético are coming very strong,” Madrid’s captain said. “They are playing well. Simeone has brought a change of atmosphere there. They are a very strong opponent. It will be a very good game.”

While Simeone’s success has been built upon an aggressive and hard-working defence and midfield (just 11 goals conceded in 13 La Liga games), it also helps to have the world’s hottest centre-forward up front. Colombian hitman Radamel Falcao scored 17 goals in his first 12 games for club and country this season, and while he then hit a mini-barren run, he was back on the scoresheet in last Sunday’s 4-0 rout of Sevilla at Estadio Vicente Calderón.

Such form, Falcao’s complicated contract and ownership situation, and Atlético’s estimated €350m debts, have led to persistent rumours of a €60m transfer, with Chelsea and Madrid hovering. The ex-Porto man was again non-committal about his future when speaking on Spanish radio this week, but stressed he and his team-mates were going to the Bernabéu to win.

“I have played in many big derbies and outside circumstances are forgotten in these types of games,” said the 26-year-old, whose squeaky-clean off-field image masks a steely determined streak.

“The players go out to win them without anything holding them back. I do not see myself happy to take a draw.”

Atlético’s confidence is further fuelled by Madrid’s ongoing stumbles, which see José Mourinho’s side 11 points behind Barcelona, and an even more surprising eight behind their city rivals. After last Saturday’s surprise 0-1 reverse at Real Betis, Mourinho blamed the usual suspects — the referee, players’ lack of commitment, a lack of boardroom support, even La Liga’s fixtures committee for favouring Barca — but such excuses are met with increasing scepticism in Spain, especially after Madrid’s recent struggles against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League.

The spark that led to record-breaking points and goal tallies while reclaiming the La Liga title last season seems missing. This is most dramatically symbolised by the continuing “sadness” of talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, who has only scored once in his last six games, while he reportedly awaits a €5m a year pay rise from Madrid president Florentino Pérez.

Madrid’s issues run deeper than their leading scorer’s self-valuation. Injuries in defence have caused problems, but midfield is more of a concern with German playmaker Mesut Özil substituted at half-time three times already this season, and opponents having learned the importance of shutting down Xabi Alonso, who turned 31 last weekend. Last weekend at Betis, Madrid ended the game by lumping futile high balls towards emergency centre-forward Sergio Ramos. The sense remains that when not playing at 100% urgency and steamrolling teams, they lack the guile to unpick a determined defence (such as Atlético’s, for example).

This led to a surreal situation during Tuesday night’s underwhelming 3-0 Copa del Rey home win over third tier Alcoyano, when fans began debating their feelings for Mourinho. Ultras in the Bernabeu’s Fondo Sur repeatedly started chants in favour of the Portuguese coach, but were drowned out each time by whistles from the other three sides of the stadium.

Casillas said on Thursday that he understood Madrid’s fans’ current frustration.

“This is not a moment to be happy,” he said. “We know that madridistas are hurting. We must win and then keep hoping. A draw is no good to us. Thinking of anything which is not a victory is going down the wrong path.”

If the sound of Madrid’s fans working out their internal divisions in public was surreal, the idea of Atlético going to the Bernabéu as favourites is almost unthinkable. The bookies still make Mourinho’s side odds-on to achieve a morale boosting win which could galvanise their season, with Atlético 11/2 outsiders to pull off their first derby win this century.

Should that happen, there will be more than whistles for Mourinho, and Tito Vilanova’s Barcelona will be almost champions elect with barely a third of the season gone. Unless, that is, Simeone’s 2012 Atlético are the real deal.


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