Just three points separate Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid ahead of their meeting at the Vicente Calderon on Sunday, yet it is hard not to think that the two teams are now heading in different directions this season.
Real Madrid enjoyed a dream couple of days last weekend as their 3-0 win over Elche was followed by defeats for Atletico and Barcelona. For the first time this season it took Madrid clear at the top of the Primera Division and above their city rivals.
It is just reward for a run of form that is currently only matched in Europe’s major leagues by the all-conquering Bayern Munich. Madrid have now gone 27 games unbeaten in all competitions since losing the Clasico in October. But the side has really taken shape under Carlo Ancelotti since he switched to a 4-3-3 formation in January.
Following the signing of Gareth Bale, Ancelotti was handed an array of attacking talent that would be the envy of almost every coach in the world. His initial problem was getting the best out of the likes of Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Angel di Maria, while maintaining some semblance of balance to the team. There were initial issues of a varying nature with Bale, Benzema and Di Maria. Meanwhile, even when the front players were firing, the defense was worryingly open, no better illustrated than in the extraordinary 7-3 victory over Sevilla.
But Ancelotti, who has often lacked a tactical identity through his much-traveled career, has again shown an ability to adapt to the players at his disposal. With Xabi Alonso back anchoring the midfield, Luka Modric has been outstanding to his right, helping Madrid to control games far more than they did last season, while feeding incisive passes forward. To their left, Di Maria, seemingly the victim of a campaign to force him out of the club earlier in the season, has adapted superbly to a midfield role that he has often played with Argentina.
Up front, while youngster Jese Rodriguez has been outstanding of late, the first-choice front three came to the fore with two goals apiece in an outstanding 6-1 demolition of Schalke in Germany on Wednesday. With Ronaldo having just enjoyed three matches off in La Liga due to suspension and Bale having missed much of the earlier part of the season due to niggling injuries, there is s sense that Madrid are still approaching their peak at just the right time.
In contrast, Atletico appear to be starting to run on fumes. Unlike their neighbors, Atletico simply don’t have a squad capable of being rotated and continuing to perform at a high level. Fatigue has long been seen as the chief obstacle that would prevent Atletico’s incredible season ending in a first championship since 1996. Furthering the difficulties is that under Diego Simeone, Atletico, while developing other facets of their game, are a team built to play with the ferocious intensity of their coach.
And there is evidence that the predicted tiredness is now coming to the fore. Atletico have lost four of their last six matches and on Sunday they lost 3-0 to Osasuna, with all the goals coming inside the first half.
It should not be a surprise. Comparing the statistics of the two probable starting lineups on Saturday makes for stark reading. While Madrid’s 11 players have made an average of just 18 starts in all competitions this campaign, while Atletico’s have made 31. It is a huge difference and a huge mountain for Simeone to overcome if he is to keep his side in title contention. His plan to inject fresh impetus into the squad with the loan signing of Diego has so far backfired.
He may now reflect that it would have been wise to have used the Copa del Rey as a chance to give more of his players a rest. They ultimately crashed out at the semifinal stage to Real Madrid, with a 3-0 defeat after an intense battle in the first leg being decisive.
Madrid went onto win return match at the Calderon, too, meaning that they have now seemingly put the two previous back-to-back defeats to Atletico behind them. Still, there was no sign that the inferiority complex that contributed heavily to Atletico going 13 years without a win against their foes, before snapping it in last season’s Copa del Rey final, has returned.
And there remains the strong possibility that Atletico will raise their level for the big occasion in front of their passionate fans at the Calderon on Sunday. There are few teams better equipped to test Madrid’s new found solidity than Atletico. Their counter-attacks can be deadly with Koke and Arda Turan supplying Diego Costa. At the back, a phenomenally well drilled unit and an excellent central defensive partnership of Miranda and Diego Godin will make life far harder than a shambolic Schalke side did in midweek.
But Madrid are just a better all-round team right now. Their defense has been very solid of late and they can both control the game better than Atletico while also retaining the option of striking with devastation on the break. The visitors have to start as favorites, but having had a midweek off for the first time in 2014, Atletico may do just enough to secure a share of the points with which Madrid may not be all that disappointed.
Prediction: Atletico Madrid 1-1 Real Madrid