Madrid derby: Real have borrowed from Atletico's manual to get back on top

Madrid derby: Real have borrowed from Atletico's manual to get back on top
Madrid derby: Real have borrowed from Atletico's manual to get back on top

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - When Atletico Madrid arrive at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium on Saturday, they might consider taking action against their hosts for breach of copyright. In the capital there is supposed be just one club who eke out goals from set-pieces, and whose central defenders win all their key duels in the opposition penalty area.

Those trademarks of the tough, resilient Atletico of the Diego Simeone era have lately gone missing. Or else they simply crossed town, put to functional use at a Real Madrid who can this weekend extend their unbeaten run, across competitions, to 21 matches.

The new year has been a happy one for Real: top of La Liga and with a trophy already, having beaten Atletico on penalties in the final of the supersized Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia.

Real are through to the last eight of the Copa del Rey, too, thanks to an emphatic 4-0 win at Zaragoza on Wednesday. First of the four names on the scoresheet? Rafa Varane, following a corner. Defender Varane’s third strike in the last eight weeks already makes his goal tally for 2019-20 higher than all but one of his eight previous campaigns with Madrid.

The man who put them top of La Liga? Nacho, another defender, whose late header from a Toni Kroos cross sealed the three points at Real Valladolid, to move ahead of Barcelona in the table.

Evidently, long partnership with Sergio Ramos, the high-scoring centre-half par excellence, has taught his colleagues a few things. Having Kroos in charge of delivering from dead-balls is also a boon. The Germany midfielder is on eight assists so far for the season, and maintaining standards as high as at any time in his decorated Madrid career.

All of which is watched with a mixture of envy and nostalgia by Atletico, who returned from Saudi Arabia to be knocked out of the Copa del Rey by third-tier Cultural Leonesa, and pushed out of La Liga's top four after taking just a point from their meetings with Eibar and Leganes.

What Simeone would give for a Kroos. His consistent supplier of precision passes, Koke, has only set up two goals this season and while Kieran Trippier, bought from Tottenham Hotspur largely because of his expertise with a dead ball, has supplied some excellent passes, the set-piece marauders from the back that once defined Simeone’s team have faded away.

Diego Godin, who moved to Internazionale in the summer, is especially missed.

Six months ago, in New Jersey, Atletico took on Real in a most unfriendly friendly – Diego Costa and Dani Carvajal were both sent off – and Atletico were 6-0 up by the 51st minute. It finished 7-3, and pre-season or not, encouraged bold forecasts for Atletico’s season.

Joao Felix, the costly teenager, shone in that game, as he has done only sporadically since. Costa, who scored four goals before his 65th-minute dismissal, seemed to have rediscovered vintage form as well as his old fire. Alas for Simeone, the striker has been injured more than he has been available.

The 7-3 naturally led to gloomy predictions for Zinedine Zidane’s Real, gloomier still when they were outplayed by Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.

The outlook is far rosier now, as they peer towards next month’s meeting with Manchester City in the last 16 of the European Cup, with Eden Hazard, the summer recruit they have scarcely seen because of injury, ready to return in good time for that fixture.

“We are happy with where we are,” said Zidane, “but a very hard match is ahead of us on Saturday, and we need the best version of ourselves to carry on this run.”

The best version may be more functional than flamboyant at times, but Zidane, who began his second spell in charge last March, has a licence for pragmatism if it helps Madrid back to where they were, as serial European champions, in his previous reign.

Updated: January 31, 2020 09:03 AM

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