Diego Simeone says that giving the Atletico Madrid fans a performance to savor in potentially the last ever match against rivals Real Madrid at the Vicente Calderon is more important than closing the gap in the title race. The 50-year-old stadium will be torn down at the end of the season as Atletico move into a shiny new 67,000-capacity stadium in 2017-18. It also means, barring a meeting in the Copa del Rey or Champions League, Saturday will be the last derby staged at the famous Cauldron.
Atletico has made the intimidating atmosphere count in recent years, going six matches unbeaten against Madrid in all competitions. Another win would be most welcome this weekend, with Atletico trailing its table-topping neighbor by six points in the Primera Division. Atletico’s coach, though, has other priorities.
“I think that what matters most to us regarding tomorrow’s game is how we enter the match, what matters to us regarding tomorrow’s game is interpreting the emotional part of what it means to play the last league game against our eternal rivals at home,” Simeone said in his pre-match press conference. “And hopefully we can all experience it with the feeling of being united and be able to perform accordingly. You can be six points away, or three points, or nine points, but, sincerely, that doesn’t matter at this time.”
Under Simeone’s charge, Atletico has gone from Real Madrid’s poor relation to a serious and consistent rival. However, Real Madrid is also the team that has inflicted the two most painful defeats in Atletico’s history. In two of the last three seasons, Real has come out on top in all-Madrid Champions League finals, first after a last-gasp equalizer and an extra-time annihilation and then, in May this year, after a penalty shootout.
Still, Atletico is the only team to have inflicted a league defeat on Real Madrid since Zinedine Zidane took charge in January. Zidane’s men enter Saturday’s match on a run of 28 matches unbeaten in all competitions and have a two-point lead over Barcelona at the top of the table. The Frenchman, though, has plenty of respect for his side’s next opponent and a coach who he came up against in the midfield on eight occasions as a player.
“They're a team that keeps improving every year,” Zidane said. “They've got a very good coach who has changed a lot since his arrival and he's doing a fantastic job. Everyone talks about how well they defend but it's not only that, it's much more, and that's evident in everything they do. It's a good game to play in."
Zidane will be boosted for the trip by the return from injury of captain Sergio Ramos while striker Karim Benzema could also be back available. Casemiro, though, remains sidelined and is now joined by fellow midfielder Toni Kroos.
Atletico Madrid, which lost 2-0 at Real Sociedad before the international break, is expected to have key man Antoine Griezmann available after he picked up a foot injury while on international duty with France.
Prediction: Real Madrid has often struggled to get to grips with the midfield battle against Atletico in recent years. And with Casemiro, Zidane’s one natural physical defensive midfielder out, Atletico could have a decisive advantage. It is sure to be intense occasions at the Vicente Calderon and, although Atletico has been inconsistent this season, that should help lift Simeone’s men to victory.
Predicted Score: Atletico Madrid 2-1 Real Madrid