It was a bruising encounter in the first leg of the all-Madrid Champions League quarterfinal, but for Real Madrid it was a seemingly routine 3-1 in over Malaga on Saturday where the physical damage was truly done. A fractious scoreless result at the Vicente Calderon featured Atlético Madrid striker Mario Mandzukic taking an elbow to the face and punch to the abdomen among several clashes, and left the tie finely balanced heading back to the Bernabeu on Wednesday. But events since have surely put Atlético in pole position to garner a place in the last four and gain a slice of revenge for their defeat in last year’s final.
Already facing up the loss of Marcelo to suspension, Karim Benzema then limped out of training following a flaring up of a knee injury picked up at the Calderon. Worse was to come on Saturday. Five minutes into what would be a win to keep them two points behind Barcelona, Gareth Bale departed with a calf injury. And on the hour mark, Luka Modric followed his former Tottenham midfielder to the treatment room with a knee ligament strain.
Bale and Modric are definitely out of the Atlético return, and in all probability Benzema will be missing, too, leaving manager Carlo Ancelotti with some all-important reshuffling to do for a match that could yet decide his future at the club. Up front, the choice is set to be between homegrown forward Jesé Rodríguez and on-loan Manchester United striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernández. While Jesé has been favored through much of the season, Hernández was the man called from the bench against Malaga.
In place of Bale, the decision looks to be straightforward and, indeed, there is an argument that the switch will benefit Real Madrid. Although the Welshman has undoubted match-winning qualities, accommodating him in a team teaming with attacking talent and already featuring Cristiano Ronaldo has stretched the balance of the side to the extreme. Meanwhile, Isco, despite being Real Madrid’s best player at times this season, found himself out of the lineup following the return from injury of James Rodríguez. The former Malaga man’s return in place of Bale would offer a more natural equilibrium.
There is no possibility of drawing anything resembling a silver lining from the loss of Modric, however. He is, if not the best player at Real Madrid, arguably the most influential. It was no coincidence that his comeback from a four-month layoff last month went hand-in-hand with Madrid’s return to form after their New Year slump. The Croatian’s determination, drive and quality in the middle of the pitch are vital to making this Real Madrid team tick. And his qualities are especially necessary against an Atlético team that exposes Real Madrid’s general lack of physicality in the middle of the pitch more than any other.
It is not hard to imagine that Atlético will have relished the news of Modric’s absence, in particular. Diego Simeone’s side were put firmly on the back foot by Real’s stirring first-half performance at the Calderon, but, helped by a starring performance from goalkeeper Jan Oblak, they held firm before finishing the match as the team most likely to get a potentially decisive breakthrough. Yet even without finding the net at home, they have plenty of reason for confidence, before taking their opponents’ injuries into account.
Last week’s draw meant it is now seven matches this season in which Atlético have emerged undefeated against Real. They have shown themselves to be undaunted by a trip to Bernabeu, recording two draws and a victory there this campaign. Indeed, it was at Real’s home two years ago where Atlético’s resurgence as a force and as a genuine rival to their neighbors truly kick-started. Since Simeone’s men recorded a 2-1 victory over Real at the Bernabeu in May 2013, Real’s only victories in the rivalry have come in an intensity lacking Copa del Rey tie and after an injury-time equalizer in last year’s Champions League final.
They have reason, too, to take confidence from going into the second leg of a Champions League knockout round away from home with the score line still goalless. Last season they did just that and emerged with a 3-1 victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge to reach the final. A squad only missing suspended midfielder Mario Suarez, and featuring red-hot striker Antoine Griezmann, could be poised to upset the odds once again.
Prediction: Atlético Madrid to advance on away goals after a 1-1 result.