It’s time for another Madrid derby – this time in the league – as Atlético welcome back Real Madrid to the Vicente Calderón. The third meeting between the sides in 2015 already, this one looks to be the most important so far as Atleti look to close the gap on their capital rivals.
Ahead of the game, we sat down with Nicholas Rigg, a sports journalist based in Spain who writes for both AS and ESPN, and asked for his thoughts on both Atleti and the match ahead. Nicholas also contributes to Real Madrid blog Madridismo.org, part of our partner network, Football Collective.
Q – Top of La Liga and looking good in the Champions League, but we know with Madrid that doesn’t always mean everything is going swimmingly. How pleased are you with the season so far and the team’s current position heading into this crucial stage?
There can be few grumbles with where Madrid are currently. Although a Copa del Rey exit was disappointing, especially against Atleti and especially as holders, the priorities are always La Liga and the Champions League. Perhaps that cup exit will help, rather than hinder Madrid in the long run this season. Madridistas would have snapped your hand off had you presented a four-point lead at the top by this stage of the season and six wins out of six in Europe, coupled with a very winnable tie against Schalke in the knockout stage, has left plenty of reasons to be cheerful at the Bernabeu.
We all know how quickly things can change, however, so Madrid would be advised to take a leaf out of their neighbours’ book this campaign and take a ‘game-by-game’ approach.
Q – The Madrid derby is probably the most fiercely contested in the world right now. Obviously we’re meant to dislike each other, but is it pleasing for you to have a serious rivalry with Atleti once more?
With all respect to Atleti, it always used to be a case of Madrid turning up and taking the points no matter how they played. El Clasico was the be-all and end-all. Now Cholo Simeone has propelled Atleti to a stage where they battling for trophies alongside Madrid and Barca, and not in the ‘second tier’ of teams such as Valencia, Athletic and Sevilla. It’s great to have a Madrid derby that is up there alongside El Clasico in importance, if not prestige around the world, although I’m sure Carlo Ancelotti and Madridistas would prefer it the way it was five years ago!
Q – Lisbon. We like to block it from our memories but can’t pretend it didn’t happen forever. Did it mean more for Madrid to win against Atleti and in that fashion? How different would things be now had you not managed to find that equalising goal?
What a difference a minute can make. Had Sergio Ramos’s stoppage-time header not found its way past Thibaut Courtois then Carlo Ancelotti may well have not been the man in charge of Madrid as I type.
That may seem dramatic but this is Real Madrid and, rightly or wrongly, that was the talk before the final at the Estadio da Luz. It may well have changed Florentino Perez’s transfer policy over the summer and Atleti’s, too. For Madrid to envisage winning that way? Surely not, but to win the tenth in that fashion, against your city rivals, added the icing to the all-white cake.
Q – Moving onto this season though, what have Madrid been lacking in the five derbies so far?
Intensity has always been the issue in derby matches and although that intensity ramped up somewhat this season in comparison to last, it has still not been enough. The midfield department has also been key, as it was last season, and although Madrid have made more of an effort to have more numbers in the middle of the park when they’re defending, they still come up short against the intensity and organisation of Atleti.
Q – Saturday’s game is a real six pointer, win and you go ten points ahead of us, but a loss would cut it down to just four. Regardless of the result, do you see Atleti as realistic title challengers again this year?
As you say, Atleti’s title hopes may well depend on this game – they cannot lose. A ten point gap would be too much to close, even for Cholo’s battlers, but a victory would put them right back in the title race and a draw would ensure a tasty end to the season. Atleti should be title challenges this term and it’s another feat of Simeone’s work that he not only got Atleti to the top but has managed to keep them at the top level after so many changes to his squad over the summer.
Q – And the Champions League, can Madrid become the first team ever to defend the title since it’s reformation?
They’re certainly looking good at the moment. Six wins from six in the group stages showed Madrid are up to the task of becoming the first team to successfully defend the crown in its current format and a draw against Schalke in the next round is favourable, with respect to the German side.
The problem last season was that Madrid focused on the Champions League and let their league form slip towards the end of the campaign when they were favourites domestically. Now Ancelotti will have to get the balance right if he is to go for both again. He certainly won’t be throwing the towel in on La Liga this season.
Q – You come into the game without some key players, particularly in defence. Will this affect Ancelotti’s game plan do you think? Are you worried at all about certain absences?
Madrid should be worried at how Wednesday night’s match against Sevilla panned out. There will be no Sergio Ramos and no James Rodriguez for sure through injury. It’s a blow to lose the Colombian for at least two months but the plus will be that Cristiano Ronaldo will come in as a like-for-like this weekend. The biggest blow has come at the back.
Pepe is already out and Ramos will join him – Madrid’s two first-choice centre-backs. Marcelo will also miss out through suspension unless his booking is overturned. That will leave Raphael Varane and Nacho as centre-backs and Alvaro Arbeloa or Fabio Coentrao probably playing left-back. Madridistas can take confidence from the performance of Varane and Nacho on Wednesday, but it will no doubt the a much tougher challenge at Atleti.
Q – As you said – Cristiano will be back. Is he the key man in your eyes? And on the subject, did you feel a two match ban were fair for his antics against Córdoba?
Ronaldo will be back and I think the two-match ban may actually suit him ahead of such a big game. There are still questions about his knee and although his form this season has been stunning, a rest will do him no harm at all ahead of a match such as El Derbi. He will return fully fit and without the fatigue that three games inside a week can bring. As for the suspension, he got lucky with just the two games – maybe more players will offer their apologies in the future!
Q – How do you expect Madrid to line-up in the Calderón?
At present, I’d say: Casillas; Carvajal, Varane, Nacho, Coentrao; Kroos, Isco, Khedira; Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo. Fill Marcelo in for Coentrao if his ban is overturned.
Q – Finally, care to give us a prediction ahead of the match?
I’ll go the same as last season – 2-2.
The Madrid derby takes place at 16:00 CET on Saturday afternoon. Make sure you tune in to one of the most important games of the season.