Since Diego Simeone turned Atlético Madrid from the butt of jokes into a ferocious force, the derby with Real Madrid has become one of the most fiercely contested matches in Europe. In the past four years they have met in a Champions League final and quarterfinal, Copa del Rey final and La Liga title showdown. Results of last weekend, though, means the latest meeting between the rivals on Saturday will be of more questionable significance.
A goalless draw at home to Villarreal left Atlético eight points adrift of La Liga leaders Barcelona, while a 1-1 stalemate at Malaga dropped Real Madrid nine points off the pace. Given that Atlético have already lost the head-to-head tiebreaker battle with Barcelona, and Madrid are likely to do the same after losing 4-0 to the Catalans in the first Clásico, another point can effectively be added to both teams’ deficits. With 13 matches remaining and Barcelona appearing imperious, the task for both teams appears near insurmountable.
Indeed, Atlético defender Filipe Luis signaled as much when he said earlier this week that “We have said goodbye to La Liga.” Simeone, who turned the tide in what had been a one-sided rivalry between the Madrid clubs with victory in the 2012 Copa del Rey final, didn’t go quite as far as Luis, but suggested similar pessimism.
“While there are points to play for, the league is still on,” he said on Friday, reports Spanish sports daily AS. “But it's clear that winning it is very complicated for the distance between Barcelona and the rest of us.”
It is, of course, easier for Atlético, a team that under Simeone relishes the role of underdog, to put forward the notion of the title being out of reach, whether they truly believe it or not. For Real Madrid, the ultimate elite club, for whom winning is expected, suggesting that they had kissed goodbye to the title would not go down well. It is no surprise then that the message coming out of the Bernabeu, from both star player, Cristiano Ronaldo, and coach, Zinedine Zidane, is one of defiance.
“Whatever happens [on Saturday], we won’t be saying goodbye to La Liga,” Zidane said, according to Real Madrid’s official website. “We're not going to give up until the end because there are points to play for. I'm honest. If we lose points it's always going to be more complicated. But whatever happens we have more games, we've got the Champions League all to concentrate on. Our season doesn't end tomorrow.”
Real Madrid already look a good bet to make it through to the Champions League quarterfinals after a 2-0 win in Roma last week. For Atlético, the task is a little trickier having been held to a goalless draw at PSV Eindhoven in the first leg of their Round of 16 series on Wednesday.
The result made it three successive clean sheets for Simeone’s men, but also 268 minutes since they last scored a goal. Those scoring woes will only increase the desire for Belgian forward Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco to recover from an ankle injury in time for the derby.
Real Madrid have their own injury problems, with Gareth Bale still sidelined and Marcelo now ruled out with an abductor injury. On the positive front, Karim Benzema is back in training after missing out against Malaga, while Pepe could also be poised to make a return.
Prediction: Real Madrid have been far more impressive at the Bernabeu than on the road since Zidane took charge, scoring 20 goals in just four matches. But they have yet to encounter any team with the toughness of Atlético. Simeone’s men have by far the best defensive record in La Liga, and have conceded just five goals in 13 away games. While, after showing signs of getting back to his best in recent games, Cristiano Ronaldo could have a decisive impact, a stalemate may be on the cards.
Predicted score: Real Madrid 1-1 Atlético Madrid
Kickoff time: 10 a.m. EST
TV channel: beIN Sports
Live stream: beIN Sports Connect