Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid will continue a rivalry that has become one of the best and most intense in Europe when the two sides meet in an early La Liga clash at the Bernabeu on Saturday. It is also a rivalry that has become one of the most competitive, a far cry from the all-too recent calamitous spell in Atlético’s history when they went 13 years without beating their illustrious neighbors. Atlético’s extraordinary rise under Diego Simeone has played a part in the derby not only taking on far more meaning than just local pride but also becoming far more frequent. When the two sides meet on Saturday, it will be the seventh time they have faced off this year.
Last season, Atlético took four points off Madrid en route to lifting the Spanish title, while Carlo Ancelotti’s men came out on top on the way to winning the Copa del Rey and then dramatically in the final of the Champions League. But both teams have undergone significant changes over the summer, meaning there are many questions to be answered in their first meeting of the new league campaign. Atlético may have triumphed in the Spanish Super Cup just last month in a two-legged battle that was far fiercer than it had a right to be before the season had even officially gotten underway, but crucial league points will now be on the line.
And both will be desperate for the points after less than ideal starts to the season. All looked to be going well for Real Madrid when they led 2-0 against Real Sociedad after just 11 minutes last time out and looked on course for back-to-back victories to begin the campaign. But they collapsed to lose 4-2 and raise further questions about their summer transfer activities. Indeed, even Cristiano Ronaldo has had his say on the matter.
Madrid struggled early on last season, and it was the return from injury of Xabi Alonso and then the insertion of Ángel di María into a midfield three that helped Ancelotti find the balance among his team of superstars for which he had been searching. One suspects the Italian was among the least pleased -- although, ever the diplomat, he would never publicly admit it -- when both were sold this summer.
The loss of Di María appears particularly ill-advised. Speaking last month, Simeone refereed to his compatriot as Madrid’s best player. Perhaps there was some mischief-making, given it then appeared that he was on his way out of Bernabeu, but there was also surely more than a kernel of truth about the comment. Di María had just come on as a substitute and played a part in turning the first leg of the Super Cup in Madrid’s favor. And three months earlier there was the Champions League final when he was rightly voted Man of the Match, despite the two most expensive players in history -- Ronaldo and Gareth Bale -- getting on the score sheet.
In a 4-3-3 formation, there is arguably no better player in the world to bring natural balance on the left of a midfield three. James Rodríguez has essentially been bought to fill Di María’s boots after starring in the World Cup. While an undoubted fine player, it would be difficult to make a case that he performs what is an unfamiliar midfield role better than Di Maria. Certainly it hasn’t looked that way when he has been used there thus far. Yet with Ancelotti insisting that Ronaldo is now fit to return after a latest in a recent spate of injuries, it is likely to be where Rodríguez will have to play, unless a shift in formation is forthcoming.
Even then, with Alonso gone and Sami Khedira again injured, Madrid lack a player naturally equipped to either provide screening for the defense or physicality in the midfield. What they will have on Saturday is another option to Karim Benzema up front. Following his arrival on loan from Manchester United on transfer deadline day, Ancelotti has confirmed that Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez will make his debut for Madrid off the substitute’s bench.
While Real Madrid may have to adapt following their summer transfer business, so too will Atlético Madrid. Unlike their rivals, the changes undergone by Atlético were largely enforced, thanks to the loss of Diego Costa, Filipe Luis and Thibaut Courtois to Chelsea, while the likes of David Villa and Diego have also departed. It would be easy to predict that such losses would result in the end of Atlético punching above their weight against their far richer rivals in Spain -- Real Madrid and Barcelona -- but they have invested strongly and have perhaps emerged with a stronger squad in terms of depth.
Still, an alteration is required up front. Although new signing Mario Mandzukic may be the closest striker to Costa in terms of style and quality that Atlético could have signed and brings the same pressing, work rate and physicality as the man he has been charged with replacing, what he doesn’t have is the Spain international’s pace. Instead that crucial attribute in Atlético’s ability to play on the counter attack will now be provided by exciting young France international Antoine Griezmann. The linkup between the pair will be key. It remains a work in progress, with Atlético opening the league season with a goalless draw and then a 2-1 win over Eibar coming thanks to two goals from set-pieces.
Prediction: Both teams will take some time to find their optimum groove this season, but it is Atlético Madrid that could have the advantage at this early stage. Simeone’s intense style of play remains entrenched and his team thrives on taking on a team like Madrid -- made up of individual stars and with the desire to attack. Atlético will get every man behind the ball, press intently in midfield and look to hit on the break. Their best success, though may come from set-pieces, which, simply put, Atlético are particularly good at attacking and Madrid are not very good at defending. Atlético scored against Madrid from set-pieces in both the Champions League final and the first leg of the Super Cup, while Madrid also conceded two goals from corners against Sociedad. Still, at home and with so much individual talent, Real Madrid may be able to secure a point.
Real Madrid 1-1 Atlético Madrid
D: Arbeloa, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo
M: Modric, Kroos, Rodríguez
F: Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo
D: Juanfran, Miranda, Godín, Siqueira
M: Gabi, Tiago
Raúl Garcia, Griezmann, Koke
Kickoff time: 2 p.m. EDT
TV channel: BeIN Sports
Live stream: BeiN Sports Connect