Lat Minute Guide to the Madrid Derby

There are two types of football games on your TV sets. The first set of matches usually generates the reaction “I can’t wait for this game. When is this game being played? Why the fuck is it so far away?” The other set of matches falls the under the category of “Meh. Maybe I’ll check it out. Actually I got work to do that day, so I’ll just catch-up on the highlights later.” In all honesty, Madrid derby fell in the second category for the first five years of my football life. You saw the two sides play and you could clearly tell the difference in the level of confidence and the belief each team had in themselves. Real were the better team and it wasn’t even close. But something happened at the end of 2012-13 season, something that I remember ever so well and that changed the face of the Madrid derby as we know it.

18th of May 2013 (17th for the local residents, because time zones), the final game of a very disappointing season for the Real supporters. After failing miserably to defend their La Liga title against Barcelona (which they won by a whopping 15 points), they bowed out of the Champions League in the most gut-wrenching fashion at the semi-finals stage for third year in a row. It was already evident that there was something rotten in the locker room and Mourinho would be booted at the end of the season. But I still tuned in, just to watch my team get their hands on the trophy and for the trinity of Ramos, Casillas and Ronaldo to smash that trophy on Mourinho’s head.

Going into the match, the outcome was never in doubt, Real Madrid were the clear favorites. If someone had asked you to bet your life on an Atletico’s win in the match, you would’ve shot yourself twice before taking the bet. Atletico’s last win over their neighboring rivals was in the ’99-00 season. That was 13 freaking years ago. You are talking about a time when Bush was elected as the President of the USA, when Windows thought that it was a good idea to release Windows Millennium and when Matrix wasn’t turned into a joke by its sequels. Children in Spain had grown up watching their national team rise from the ashes and become the World Champions, but they had never seen the men in White taste defeat at the hands of Atletico. It was all too easy and perfect for us. Until it wasn’t. Real lost the game 2-1 in extra time, with Ronaldo being sent off. It was an ugly end to an even uglier season. I switched off the television and went to bed, hoping to dump whatever memory I had of the season.

Ever since that moment, the Madrid derby moved to the former category. Atletico were no longer the crosstown minnows. They followed it up with the league title in 2013-14 campaign. Suddenly the Madrid Derby became must see TV. The two clubs who always stood for different ideologies were finally equals on the pitch. Santiago Bernabeu is located alongside banks and businesses on the upper class Paseo de la Castellana and on the other hand, Vicente Calderon can be found near a brewery, along the Manzanares River. Madridistas look down upon their rivals, as if they don’t belong in the same stratosphere, while Atletico fans wear their blue collar identity with pride. And this difference in ideology transforms onto the field. The Galacticos, the million dollar men are resented by Simeone’s hard-working and tireless bunch. They genuinely hate each other and you can feel it.

It wasn’t surprising that the transformation of Atletico coincided with Simeone’s arrival on to the scene. He gave them an identity and made them believe that they could go toe to toe with the giants from the Spanish capital. In the last six league meetings, Los Rojiblancos have etched out four victories and other two have ended in draws. Yes, their last three Champions League campaigns have been cut short by Real but he for the most part has out-coached his rival number. And he’ll need every trick in his book to fetch another victory for his club. Atletico are off to their worst start under him with already six points adrift of Real (who are the league leaders) and a loss would mean kissing the league goodbye. Real has been unbeaten in their last 28 games including all the 11 games of the current league campaign.

But those numbers could be deceiving. Though unbeaten, Real have yet to put together a statement game against a quality opposition. Their defense is as good as Nicholas Cage’s hair in Con Air (aka not so good) as they’ve managed only two clean sheets in eleven games of the campaign so far. Injuries to Ramos, Pepe, Keylor and Casemiro at various stages could be blamed for that but they just don’t pass the eye-test defensively. They are too discombobulated on that end of the field. Even though Sergio Ramos is back in the squad, he hasn’t played competitive football since he went down with the knee injury in late September against Dortmund. And trust me, for all his stupid fouls and bitching to the referees, he’s the kind of guy you want out there when 60,000 people are craving your blood. Tell me, would you go in a war with Nacho (and this is nothing against him. He’s solid for what he does, but we don’t need solid)? Heck no! Now, would you go war with Ramos by your side? Fuck yes! I’ll probably declare war on the whole world with Ramos with me (or Pepe, the master of Dark Arts. But he’s injured too).

Midfield is another issue for the French coach. Kroos’ injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. If Zidane rolls with his preferred 4-3-3 formation, with a combination of Modric, Kovacic, Isco, Rodriguez and/or Asensio, expect Atletico to roll them over with their physicality as Madrid’s wings aren’t interested in tracking back on defense (especially Ronaldo) and full-backs are way too eager to get forward. Mimicking Atletico’s 4-4-2 could serve them well, given that Benzema still isn’t 100% despite making it to the squad. That leaves you with Ronaldo (more on him in a second) and Bale upfront, running into spaces when Atletico’s defense pushes up.

Atletico’s record might reflect a poor start to the campaign but the explanation could be very simple: schedule. They have already played Barcelona, Celta, Real Sociedad, Sevilla and Valencia on away trips. Real have been to only one of those. Gulp! They are playing the most expansive football under Simeone with the shift of Koke to the middle. They are much more robust offensively but it has come at the cost of their defensive supremacy. Griezmann’s bruised foot was a cause of concern over the international weekend but reports are that it was minor setback and he’s on track to start the game. They’ll need every ounce of his talent to carve open the pulpy Madrid defense.

Let’s put all that aside and address the elephant in the room, Cristiano Ronaldo. By all measures he’s one of the ten best players to ever step foot on the football pitch. But let’s face it, he’s no longer the freak of nature that he once was. After spending the first few games on the bench with injury, he’s off to the worst league start of his Real career and coming into the match, the number of goals he’s scored against the Atletico in the last six meetings is equal to the number of people who want another Die Hard sequel – 0. He is still capable of putting together a throwback game, but asking him to bring that magic game after game seems too tough of a task to ask. And when you start using the term “throwback” with an athlete you know that they are past their prime. Zidane’s shift to 4-4-2 could benefit him the most as his days of running off the shoulders of full backs are behind him. Playing a more central role is much more suited to his abilities as he is still a cerebral assassin.

No matter what happens, when these two teams take guard in Vincente Calderon on Saturday night, it will be special. Either Simeone will whip out another coaching masterclass or Zidane will shut-up his critics and all the talk about the weak schedule so far. But above all, it will be the last derby at Vincente Calderon. 50 years later, the men in Red and White are leaving their identity behind. The stadium witnessed the transformation of this matchup from a joke to something that now attracts millions of fans worldwide. You ask, where will I be? In front of the TV set because I have no work to do.