The expensive retooling of rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid, plus the loss of key players such as Diego Costa and Thibaut Courtois, had many predicting that Atletico Madrid’s title win last year would turn out to be a flash in the pan. But after a stirring 2-1 derbi victory over troubled neighbors Real at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, it seems Diego Simeone’s men are planning on sticking around for a while.
Here are three thoughts on today’s enthralling clash:
1. Atletico replaced intensity with cool heads
The rebirth of the previously moribund Madrid derby has been one of the great soccer narratives of the last two years. With Real and Atletico now locking horns as (almost) equals, it is easy to forget that until Diego Simeone’s side beat its hated rivals in the Copa del Rey final in 2013, a Real victory in El Derbi Madrileño was as inevitable an occurrence as Los Merengues spending the GDP of a small European nation on new players every summer. Back then Atletico had not beaten Real in 25 games, a run stretching back to 1999. But the battling team spirit engendered by Simeone has seen Atletico’s inferiority complex reversed, even if the pain caused by last May’s Champions League final defeat will not easily be soothed.
The intensity and tension that now underpins this clash – and that has interrupted the Athens-Sparta war of attrition between Real and Barcelona – explains why so much seemed to rest on a game that came just three rounds into the La Liga season. And certainly Atletico needed no extra motivation to hand their rivals another defeat to add to their Spanish Super Cup win in August.
Not after that night in Lisbon, a game that captain Gabi says “we’ll never, ever forget.”
Yet perhaps it was the absence of the suspended Simeone’s exhortations from the bench (although his stand-in, burly assistant German Burgos, isn't shy either), or the fact that beating Real has lost some of its death or glory shock value, but Atletico seemed to be missing some of its fiery passion at the Santiago Bernabeu this evening. Real dominated large swathes of the game, even after Tiago had headed the visitors in front.
Although there were a few flying elbows and knees early on, and seven yellow cards for Atletico, Simeone’s men seemed oddly passive. Twin strikers Mario Mandzukic and Raul Jimenez were largely ineffective up front, and until Atletico sprung into life with Arda Turan’s beautifully worked goal on 76 minutes, only two or three outstanding saves from goalkeeper Miguel Angel Moya kept Los Colchoneros in it in the first half.
Yet Atletico hung on until the break, and then did a much better job of stifling Real in the second half. That provided the platform for Turan’s winner as the hosts faded, and substitute Antoine Griezmann could even have added a third at the death. After that nervy first half, suddenly it became clear that this was a win built on maturity and confidence, rather than blood, sweat and tears – a performance by a team that struggled at times, but knew how to make adjustments and keep its collective head. Worryingly for Real (and Barcelona) this felt not so much like David vs. Goliath, but Goliath vs. Goliath. Simeone’s Atletico plan on sticking around for a while, it seems.
2. Real close to pressing the panic button?
In less fevered soccer climates, three league games into the season would be far too early for talk of crisis. But things are different in Spain, especially now that Atletico has joined Real and Barcelona in the cold war at the La Liga summit. In Spain the title winners usually count their defeats on the fingers of one hand – Real, currently in 12th spot, already has two, and trails its Madrid neighbor by four points, and Barcelona by six.
The club’s remarkable summer in the transfer market, adopting a “even though it ain’t broke, tinker with it anyway” approach, was questioned by Cristiano Ronaldo this week, and on this performance, Carlo Ancelotti still has some head-scratching to do if he is to put this fabulously expensive jigsaw together.
Although Real reacted well to Tiago’s early opener (even if the goal itself revealed the team’s ongoing fragility at corners and set-pieces), dominating the rest of the first half before fading towards the end of the game, the puzzle of just how to fit so many talented players into a limited number of slots continues to look like a daunting challenge.
James Rodriguez flickered only occasionally here, and having already been tried in a number of midfield positions (though not, interestingly, the number 10 floating playmaker role in which he flourished for Colombia at the World Cup), continues to look uncomfortable in his new surroundings, especially in comparison with the vibrancy that Angel Di Maria brought to the team last year.
But he wasn't the only one responsible for Real’s struggles this evening. Toni Kroos, Gareth Bale and Luka Modric all struggled to impose themselves in the second half as Atletico’s confidence grew, while Karin Benzema will watch the highlights of his glaring 33rd-minute miss with his hands over his eyes.
Real’s problems may also be mental. For the second week in a row the team has looked to be on the brink of cruising to a comfortable win, before relaxing and letting the opposition back into the game. The marking for Atletico’s winner, with Juanfran, Raul Garcia and Turan in acres of space, was lackadaisical at best.
3. Moya's heroics keep Atletico in it
In a summer where the transfers of players such as Luis Suarez, Rodriguez and Kroos made the headlines, considerably less attention was paid to Atletico’s signing of Getafe goalkeeper Miguel Angel Moya for a modest U$3.9 million. But in replacing one of the bedrocks of Atletico’s recent transformation from soccer Pekingese to Pit Bull, Thibaut Courtois, Moya will have a vital role to play in the club’s pursuit of honors this season.
If he continues to perform like he did against Real today, Atletico’s goal will be in safe hands. Moya was in terrific form at the Santiago Bernabeu, making a number of spectacular saves as Atletico hung on in the first half, most notably when he sprawled to his left to palm away Gareth Bale’s deflected free-kick, and then dived low to stop a Benzema header in the 39th minute. His work kept Atletico in the game when Real could have built a handsome lead, and allowed Simeone’s shock troops to regroup in the second half, and ultimately snatch victory, as Real wobbled.