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Forza Futbol

A Better Lens at Spanish Football

 

It’s December 2nd, and the world is back to normal.

 

For a tantalising week there was a growing sense that the balance of pressure I described in our weekend preview, with Real needing to perform and Atlético with everything to gain, was going to tilt matters the visitors’ way. And then reality hit home.

 

Atlético’s preparations seemed to have been textbook. An open training session this morning at the Vicente Calderón attracted 21,000 supporters as Diego Simeone sought to give his squad a taste of the passion that was welling behind them: there might not have been many Colchoneros in the stands of the Bernabeu, but Simeone hoped to implant their passoin in his players’ minds. Banners reading ‘Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Come on Atlético’ and ‘Madrid is only red-and-white. Crush them Atleti’ will have left them in little doubt over the importance of the match. Those sentiments weren’t reflected in the insipid performance on the night though.

 

The confidence spread to the boardroom. Atlético’s CEO Miguel Ángel Gil Marin told AS “The fact that more than 20,000 people would come to tell the team they’re behind them in spite of not being able to go to the game gives you an idea of what this club represents.

 

“And to that we’ve got to add the points that the team has won and the commitment of the players. We’ve already won our match. We’re only playing for three points.

 

“The Atlético fans have shown their commitment and loyalty once again. They make us proud, they encourage us to keep working and to take risks. Atlético is enormous.”

 

“In life, when things are going as well as they are for us at the moment, unity makes you even stronger. Our fans won’t be able to be with us on Saturday because the tickets are very expensive, but we will be united.

 

“Madrid always start very strongly in a match like this and that’s what they’ll do. It’s important for us to hold up in the first few minutes. If they come out fighting in the derby, we’ll do the same, to the limit. They’ll close up the spaces because they have great players, very quick and strong. But we’ll do the same.”

 

The role reversal was continuing on the Merengue side of the city. Meanwhile, Real Madrid were suffering a nervous build-up, Jose Mourinho had to field awkward questions at his pre-match press conference, and of course, he did it in his inimitably tetchy way.

 

While Adrian had been fielding pattycake questions on the poor form of Cristiano Ronaldo and the referee being the biggest danger to Atletico, Mourinho was deflecting barbs about the gap between his side and Atletico, and the idea that defeat would definitively end his side’s title hopes. When Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe, Fabio Coentrao, Kaká and Arbeloa missed the team bus to the team hotel his sense of humour was surely stretched even further.

 

In contrast, Simeone’s press conference was focussed more on the positives, offering him an opportunity to bolster his team’s unity further:

 

“In life, when things are going as well as they are for us at the moment, unity makes you even stronger. Our fans won’t be able to be with us on Saturday because the tickets are very expensive, but we will be united.

 

“Madrid always start very strongly in a match like this and that’s what they’ll do. It’s important for us to hold up in the first few minutes. If they come out fighting in the derby, we’ll do the same, to the limit. They’ll close up the spaces because they have great players, very quick and strong. But we’ll do the same.”

 

Most startlingly of all, one feature of the build-up brought to light the remarkable shift in the balance of power in Madrid which the last couple of weeks had seen. Gil Marin had to field a question on his manager’s future, but for a change the context wasn’t how long he had, but whether he was worried that Real might poach him.

 

Mourinho might enjoy fostering a sense of impermanence, a notion that he could depart at any time, to keep reminding his employers not to take him for granted, but that’s something he does on his own terms. This was something very different. The speculation wasn’t formed by the thought that The Special One is irreplaceable, but by the notion that across the city Real’s rivals have someone better.

 

So the match began with all those certainties we held about the two clubs up in the air. Our preconceptions were being challenged; would the world turn upside down? Well, no.

 

Atletico were bright and solid until Arda Turan’s foolish handball allowed Ronaldo the chance to fire Real ahead. When I said in the afore-mentioned preview that both those players would play key roles in the match, I didn’t quite mean it like that! But Turan’s careless hand turned out to be the decisive factor as the world returned to normal. Atlético shrivelled and almost seemed to accept defeat, Real looked in control, turning up for the big match yet again, and the most unshakable constant in the Spanish football world remained in place: Real beat Atlético.

 

 

Mark Griffiths On December - 2 - 2012
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