Now here’s a game we seem to have been anticipating for a while!
We’ve had to wait until now to see Atletico face opposition from the highest level: let’s see how they cope. Actually, Diego Simeone might not agree with that statement. After all, his side played Chelsea in the European Super Cup at the start of the season; perhaps the ease with which they dispatched them makes it feel like we’re still waiting for Atletico’s first proper test. Anyway, there’s no doubt that this will be a true challenge for this season’s surprise title contenders.
Atletico certainly couldn’t ask to be in better shape for such an examination. They limbered up with a spectacular 4-0 dismissal of Sevilla which, while influenced by an early red card, already looked like a mismatch. Furthermore, they got through the game with the players close to suspension unscathed, and have essentially a full squad to pick from.
The fact that the game is at the Bernabeu might just play into their favour too. Part of the logic behind this argument is tactical: Atletico are at their best when counter-attacking, and as Real Madrid look to impose themselves on the game they ought to get plenty of scope to break swiftly. By the same token, Real’s own famed pace and ability to counter attack probably won’t be a problem as Atletico will get men swiftly behind the ball if they can’t win it back quickly.
Sometimes a game between two counter-attacking sides can be awful to watch. It’s like when two counter-punching boxers face each other and aren’t willing to lead, but just wait for their opponent to throw the first punch. This game won’t be like that, but Real will have to go at Atletico when perhaps they’d rather not. The visitors will find the game being played on their terms more than their hosts will.
The other reason why the game is being played at the Bernabeu is an advantage for Atletico is psychological. It might reduce the pressure on them.
Traditionally Atletico fold when they come up against their neighbours. In recent years a succession of false dawns have seen them face Real with a glimmer of hope in their hearts that this time they might actually be on the verge of making the breakthrough, and every time they’ve been slapped down comprehensively. Just to put this into context, Real have won their last eight clashes with Los Colchoneros, and eleven of the last twelve, stretching back to 2006. The last time Atletico came out on top wasn’t even this millennium – they won 3-1 at the Bernabeu in October 1999!
Just to put a bit of context to that: youthful prospects Iker Casillas and Samuel Eto’o were on the bench for John Toshack that night, and their side were put to the sword by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, whose two goals helped put Atletico 3-1 up in the first forty minutes.
Last season both matches ended 4-1 to Los Merengues. Typically, both times Atletico offered their long suffering fans hope before it was emphatically extinguished: they led at the Bernabeu for nine minutes through an Adrian goal before reality hit home, while a Radomel Falcao strike meant they were level at the Vicente Calderon with three quarters of the game gone. They then succumbed to the genius of Cristiano Ronaldo, who hit a hat trick and assisted Jose Maria Callejon for the other.
This Atletico side really does have the potential to make a step forwards though, and the fact that they won’t be looking to unseat the playground bully on their own patch might just help. The Atletico aficcion want to get the better of Real so badly that they anxiety might be a handicap at the Vicente Calderon. At the Bernabeu a defeat wouldn’t necessarily be seen as the end of the dream for this side, while a positive result would be an immense psychological flip.
Meanwhile, Real’s recent form looks a little wobbly. Their defeat at Real Betis, coupled with Barsa’s dismissal of Levante, a side they had to draw on all their reserves of character to beat two rounds earlier, might just have killed off their title challenge. Furthermore, although they were highly impressive in the first half at Manchester City, they were fortunate to survive a second half onslaught with a point. Having seen Pepe Mel’s side bounce back from a crushing defeat in the grand manner last Saturday, this is their chance to do the same, but nagging away at the back of their minds might just be the thought that they’ve already lost the title and now the nightmare of not even being top dogs in Madrid could come true.
I suppose the context of this match is dictated by recent history. The way Barcelona and Real have run away with the top two places in recent years has been terribly unhealthy for Spanish football, and we’ve gone from hoping that a third power might emerge to resigning ourselves to the fact that it will never happen. And now Atletico have come along, usually the flakiest of the big clubs, and look like they can back up their boasts with actual substance. It all seems too good to be true, and perhaps it is.
But just think…Atletico could be eleven points clear of their neighbours by the end of the weekend! Dare Los Colchoneros dream at last?
You pay the big bucks to get players who turn up in these sort of matches. As Atletico know only too well, Cristiano emphatically falls into that category, and Real need a performance from him here.
He hasn’t been looking himself lately though. Maybe it’s the smack in the face he took at Levante; maybe he’s still a bit sad; or maybe, heaven forbid, he’s human and has actually hit a bit of quiet form. Whatever the reason, he’s only scored once in the last six games, which in the context of the Ronaldo-Messi-Falcao goal monster triumvirate is an eternity, and he needs to regain his spark before it becomes an issue.
Perhaps the fact that he’s probably the one, out of that talented trio, who cares most what the others are doing is part of the issue. Messi, of course, can’t stop scoring, Falcao ended his own little dry spell last Sunday, but Ronaldo was peripheral at Betis and frustrated at Manchester City, whose fans delighted in taunting their erstwhile derby foe.
He’ll come up against a redoubtable, battle-hardened defensive unit in Simeone’s Atletico, though, especially when he ventures centrally. Diego Godin and Miranda look very solid, and certainly able to match Ronaldo in a physical encounter, so he might find the flanks a more profitable option. Both Atletico full backs enjoy getting forwards, so Ronaldo will want early service so he can burst in behind them. If Real can’t force counter-attacks, his natural home will be breaking into the channel between Juanfran and the right-sided centre back, Godin, but the tough Uruguayan is a specialist at covering those sort of runs and slamming the door in strikers’ faces as he eases them off the ball and runs it out of play.
This will be a real test of Ronaldo, both physically and in terms of his character. Despite the derision he attracts, he’s rarely found wanting in either area: this should be a fascinating match for him
Xabi Alonso v Arda Turan
As I mentioned above, transitions in play are going to be crucial in this match. When Atletico lose the ball in the Real half they will press hard and fast, looking to regain possession swiftly, but if they fail to do so will swiftly get back into position: Simeone has drilled this into them and they do it superbly.
Those moments in the game will be rare points at which Real Madrid will be able to unleash their awesome counter-attacking weapons. There will be space for Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria to burst into, but it won’t be there for long. This is where Xabi Alonso’s passing will be crucial. If he’s able to release the ball quickly and accurately after a turnover, he can be the man who springs the killer thrust into Atletico’s half before they’ve regained their defensive shape.
However, Xabi hasn’t quite looked himself lately; he didn’t impose himself at Betis and misplaced a surprising amount of passes at Manchester City. If the likes of Arda Turan can press him effectively, either forcing him to pass backwards and allow Atletico time to filter back into their half, or to lose the ball in his own half, then a major battle will have been won.
Arda is particularly important, not only because his energy can help restrict Xabi, but because he is Radamel Falcao’s most creative partner. The Turk can drift into dangerous areas of the pitch, as he showed in popping up to score in Granada two rounds ago, and is a creative force on the wings. Even if it isn’t him pressuring Xabi on the ball, watch out for where he is: if the ball is won back in the Real half with Arda in a position where he can hurt Real if he is fed quickly, Jose Mourinho’s side will be in trouble.
Granada v Espanyol
Something had to give, and Mauricio Pochettino has paid for Espanyol’s horrible collapse with his job. Inevitably, Joan Collet moved swiftly once he redirected his attention to the football team after focusing on a rather spiky presidential campaign, and went for experience in the form of Javier Aguirre, a man who has certainly been around the block in both La Liga and international football. He’ll need to have an immediate impact to save Espanyol and avoid the same fate as he suffered last season, when he was dismissed by Real Zaragoza.
Let’s stack up the figures to illustrate the problems Aguirre faces on arrival at the Cornella-El Prat: in fourteen matches this season under Pochettino, Espanyol won two and lost nine. They’ve also had eight players sent off. There’s something deeply wrong at that club.
But they’re not the only ones. Victory in this match could see them climb out of the bottom three: despite their grim form they haven’t been cut adrift, which suggests there’s some clubs with real problems at the wrong end of La Liga this season. A win would certainly see them climb above their hosts, who are finding that having attacking intentions and spending time passing the ball around in front of the opposing back four isn’t quite the same as having a good attack.
In fact, despite glimmers of promise from Youssef El Arabi, Yacine Brahimi, Dani Benitez, Gabriel Torje, Fabián Orellana and Floro Flores, none of them are actually coming up with the goods. Equal with Osasuna they’ve scored the least home goals this season, six in six, although they’ve spread them around: Atletico’s 1-0 win in Granada‘s last home game was the first time a visiting team have kept a clean sheet at Estadio Nuevo Los Cármenes.
Espanyol have only managed one away clean sheet this season, but their defence is surprisingly decent away from home: they’ve conceded nine on the road, the best away defence in the bottom half of the table. Perhaps Aguirre has inherited something he can work with.
Getafe v Malaga
After Malaga’s demolition of Valencia in the last round, is everything fine again on the Costa del Sol? That emphatic victory ended a four-match run without a win, but their away form remains a matter to remedy: after winning their first two away games in the league, they haven’t won away on the road since.
In fact,there’s a real difference between Malaga’s approach home and away. At the Rosaleda they attack and goals go in at either end; away from home they dig in and goals are at a premium. This is reflected by the fact that there has only been one home game this season which hasn’t had at least three goals in it – a 1-1 draw with Mallorca in round 2- while away from home the game which has featured three goals was the 2-1 loss at Atletico – and that was only because Weligton scored the decisive injury time winner in his own net.
Malaga will be solid at the Alfonso Pérez then, but this will be a tough test of the substance of their recovery. Probably. Getafe are a funny all-or-nothing sort of team and it’s getting quite tricky to read them. They’ve drawn just once this season and have won three and lost three at home. Also, of their six wins this season, in half of them their opponents have had at least one player sent off, and last weekend’s clean sheet against dismal Espanyol was the first they’ve kept this season against a side with eleven players at the final whistle.
Not that Getafe’s efforts are getting the recognition they deserve. They have the lowest average attendance in the division (10,083) and the third lowest percentage of their ground’s capacity which is full per game in the division (57%). Despite being 7th in La Liga. Maybe that’s why their home record is so erratic.
Last season this match was a particularly spectacular affair. Getafe took an early lead and were then blown to pieces by a spectacular salvo of goals. . Eliseu, Jeremy Toulalan and Santi Cazorla all scored screamers from outside the box to secure a 3-1 Malaga win. As you’d expect, Eliseu and Toulalan’s efforts were belted in, and Cazorla’s was quite simply a stroke of utter genius.
Pedro León v Eliseu
The powerful Portuguese has been filling in at left back of late, with Natxo Monreal out injured. Manuel Pellegrini tried to configure his side in a way which would avoid this eventuality, fielding the right-footed Sergio Sánchez on the left. He got away with it in the 1-1 draw at Milan (but looking at how Milan started the season, maybe that wasn’t too much of a stretch) but emphatically didn’t in the subsequent 2-1 home loss to Real Sociedad which necessitated a half time overhaul of the back four and sent Eliseu to left back.
He’s been there since, he’s no stranger to the role and Malaga have kept a clean sheet in both subsequent league matches. However, he’s naturally going to be more comfortable driving forwards than sitting back, and as I’ve already mentioned, Malaga away from home will spend time without the ball, keeping it tight.
This means he’ll get a proper examination from Pedro León, a proper winger with quality delivery who has looked consistently threatening all season. He is certainly equpped to exploit any weakness down that flank, so Eliseu’s defensive credentials will be fully tested. By the same token, if León doesn’t keep an eye on him on the break he might get an opportunity to have an impact himself. As Getafe know from last season, you don’t want to let him get within range of your goal too often.
Best of the Rest
Osasuna v Rayo Vallecano
There’s no duller place to watch your Spanish football than the Reyno de Navarra this season. Six games have seen just ten goals go in at either end, but the one thing they seem to be getting right is their defence. They’ve let in just one goal at home in five games (at that was a beauty after they’d been harshly reduced to ten men against Valladolid), and only Barcelona, who were lucky to win 2-1, have hit the net twice on their patch. Rayo, with the worst away defence in the division, need to be careful.
Barcelona v Athletic Bilbao
The tame manner in which Athletic crumbled at the Bernabeu hardly bodes well for their visit to Barcelona. In fact, they have only conceded one fewer away goal than leaky Rayo, so a decent result here would be quite a coup.
Celta de Vigo v Levante
Celta’ home form is just about keeping their heads above water, while Levante have scored just four goals in six away games, and half of those came in their last away game at Deportivo. However, Levante were building up some momentum before Barsa came along last weekend, and disregarding the Copa del Rey loss to Melilla in which they fielded a weakened team, they’ve won three and drawn two of their last five away games.
Deportivo La Coruna v Real Betis
So, let’s see whether Betis can actually build on that terrific win over Real Madrid. Troubled Depor is hardly the worst place to go in order to gather some momentum, but we all know that the visitors are adept at shooting themselves in the foot just when hopes are high. Remember the derby?
Real Mallorca v Real Zaragoza
The losing streak might have ended, but Mallorca haven’t won in ten. That 2-0 victory in September over Valencia was the last time they kept a clean sheet too, and their three subsequent home matches have all been lost, with eleven goals conceded. Zaragoza, meanwhile, have looked decent of late. They’ve won four of their last seven and were put up a brave fight in losing away to Real Madrid and Barcelona in two of the other games. Joaquin Caparros needs a win, it won’t come easily here.
Sevilla v Valladolid
Would the real Sevilla please stand up? They’ve dazzled on occasions, but enter this match level with their visitors, whose ambitions are much lower.
Valencia v Real Sociedad Terrific at home, awful away. Los Che will be glad to get back to the Mestalla, and Real Sociedad’s insipid away form suggests the pattern will continue.