Monday November 21st, 2016

What a weekend for Real Madrid and Zinedine Zidane. Just hours after Barcelona dropped points at home to Malaga – denied by inspired goalkeeper Carlos Kameni, it drew a Camp Nou blank for the first time in nearly two years – the league leader beat Atlético Madrid 3-0 in the final derby at the Vincente Calderon stadium. Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick, timed well given the Ballon D’Or voting expires soon, but for once the headlines went to someone else: Zidane.

The build-up focused on how Atlético coach Diego Simeone would use his tactical nous to out-smart his opposite number. Simeone has changed Atletico’s approach this season, playing two strikers and two wingers in a far more attacking approach. Zidane was without midfielders Casemiro and Toni Kroos, while Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos were deemed not fit enough to start.

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Watch: Cristiano Ronaldo hat trick boosts Real Madrid against Atletico

That forced Zidane’s hand. He played Ronaldo as center forward, put Isco in his preferred position as number ten just behind, and picked Gareth Bale and Lucas Vasquez as wide midfielders in a hard-working midfield. The move came off, as Isco put in his best performance in a Madrid shirt and Ronaldo scored with a deflected free-kick, a penalty and a close-range finish late on. 

Atlético only threatened early in the second half, when Carrasco and Griezmann had chances. Despite not impressing for large parts of the season, Madrid remains unbeaten for the whole campaign, 29 matches, is now four points clear of Barcelona, which it faces in a fortnight, and is now nine ahead of Atlético. Madrid’s first Liga title since 2012 is in its own hands. Those who sneered at the appointment of Zidane are a little quieter now. 

Simeone, meanwhile, might have to revise his targets this season. Missing out on the Champions League next season would be unthinkable given the club’s plans to move into a new stadium. Currently the team is down in sixth, after Sevilla pulled back a 2-0 deficit to beat Deportivo, and Villarreal and Real Sociedad picked up points. “It’s never good to lose,” he said after a third loss in four games. The stylistic change might have harmed Atlético this season. Should Simone have changed its style? 

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