Real Madrid may have tasted the biggest victory of them all last May in Lisbon, but they will have to overcome recent history if they are to beat local foes Atlético Madrid and once again reach the final four of this season’s Champions League. An injury-time Sergio Ramos goal and an extra-time flurry gave Real an unprecedented 10th European Cup, while leaving Atlético heartbroken in the Portuguese capital. Yet that night now stands as an anomaly in a rivalry that has been sensationally seized by Diego Simeone’s rejuvenated Atlético in the past two years.
It was the Copa del Rey final in 2013 that proved the dramatic turning point. Then, having gone 13 years and 25 matches without beating their illustrious neighbors, Atlético triumphed in Real’s own Bernabeu to transform Atlético from hapless mess to a serious force, not least in their own city. Since then, Atlético have produced one of modern soccer’s greatest accomplishments, in defying the wealth gap to Real and Barcelona to win the Liga title last season.
Meanwhile, they gave become a painful thorn in Real’s side. Other than that famous night in Lisbon and a Cope del Rey tie last season -- when Atlético’s minds were seemingly elsewhere -- Atlético have not tasted defeat to their once dominant rivals. In the six games the pair have played this season, Atlético have won four and lost none. Just two months ago came the most one-sided result yet, when Atlético destroyed Real 4-0 at the Vicente Calderon.
The teams will be back there on Tuesday night in front of what should be a frenzied atmosphere for the first leg of their quarterfinal tie. Real Madrid, though, will hope that there are plenty of differences from their last visit. That chastening defeat came amid a real slump in form for Carlo Ancelotti’s side since their record-breaking winning run before Christmas. It was during that spell that Atlético also ousted Real from the Copa del Rey, with the European champions unable struggling to reproduce their earlier sparkling form.
Already a top-heavy team of stars that needs to run on all cylinders in order to perform as a coherent lineup, the balance had been ebbed away by growing fatigue and key absentees. The likes of Toni Kroos, forced into unfamiliar blue-collar roles, were struggling to maintain the heavy workload. And missing was a man who has rapidly become one of the squad’s most important players, Luka Modric.
It is no surprise that since the Croatian’s return, the team has started to pick up. There were positive signs in Modric’s first start back even in defeat to Barcelona, and since he has been a part of three straight wins as Madrid have closed the gap to the Catalans at the top of La Liga to just two points. In those victories, Madrid have scored 11 times and conceded just once. And as well as Modric, Ancelotti has benefited hugely from another fit-again midfielder in James Rodriguez. While Modric has brought the ability to knit the team together, James has reintroduced a sparkle and energy. And it has left Ancelotti with a selection dilemma, with the previously outstanding Isco now seemingly bumped from the first XI.
While Real go into Tuesday’s meeting with a clean bill of health, Atlético have also received a major boost on the fitness front. Mario Mandzukic, who scored and did so much to disrupt Real in February, will return from an ankle injury and, according to Simeone, be in the starting lineup for the first leg of an eagerly anticipated quarterfinal. The Croatian is likely to be paired up front by another major danger man, Antoine Griezmann. Last summer’s signing from Real Sociedad has really hit form in recent weeks, scoring four times in his last three appearances.
Griezmann bagged two goals on Saturday, although it wasn’t’ enough to prevent Atlético dropping points in a 2-2 draw at Malaga, leaving them nine points off top spot in La Liga. But while their chances of retaining their championship may have gone, they remain very much in the running to get their hands on the prize that so agonizingly eluded them last season.
Prediction: This tie could well go right to the wire. The high intensity game of Atlético makes them a nightmare for this Real Madrid team to play against. Atlético are capable of exposing the lack of muscle in the Real midfield, while also punishing them aerially in the box and from pace on the break. Meanwhile, Simeone’s men are supremely disciplined in preventing the gaps that the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo are so good at exploiting on the counter attack.
Despite being at home, Atlético are likely to be cautious and focused on ensuring that they don’t concede an away goal. Having kept three clean sheets in a row at the Calderon against their neighbors, there is reason to think they can achieve just that. Real are certainly playing with much more fluidity than just a few weeks ago, but they could be traveling back for the second leg at the Bernabeu next week with plenty to do to keep their defense of the trophy alive.
Predicted score: Atlético Madrid over Real Madrid, 1-0