It had been a long time suffering. Fourteen long years, in fact, for Atletico Madrid and their fans. Their last victory against Real Madrid came in the last century, the last millennium, courtesy of goals from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, now 41 and retired, and Jose Mari, who now plies his trade in the depths of the Segunda Division.
Ahead of the Madrid derby on Saturday however, there was a sense in the southern suburbs of the Spanish capital that the time had come. That it was the hour when Atleti would finally end their 24-game streak against their hated city rivals without a single victory. Madrid-based sporting dailies, AS and Marca spoke of how Los Blancos were not up for this one, with their minds firmly on the Champions League semi-final return leg with Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday.
And Jose Mourinho made it abundantly clear that Europe was the priority with his team selection. He rested Sergio Ramos, Fabio Coentrao, Mesut Ozil, Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric, Gonzalo Higuain and Raphael Varane in favour for Nacho, Raul Albiol, Pepe, Morata, Kaka and Ricardo Carvalho. He did not even include the injured Cristiano Ronaldo in the squad – the scorer of 31 League goals this season and eight against Atleti since 2009. Meanwhile, apart from Arda Turan, Diego Simeone was able to call on a full strength side.
In the lead up to the game, the Argentine tactician was quoted saying: “Saturday is an opportunity that we have to make the most of”. And, after just four minutes of play it looked as if Los Colchoneros were really going to make the most of it. Gabi’s effort from a free-kick was parried by Diego Lopez before Diego Godin sent it back across goal and who was there but Radamel Falcao to prod the ball home. Atletico 1-0 Madrid. The feeling that this was their time only intensified around the Vicente Calderon. They were on their way, it seemed.
But, their lead barely last 10 minutes and it was undone in the most hapless of ways. This time a free-kick from Angel Di Maria was sent in and it was Juanfran who steered the ball past his own goalkeeper. The own-goal kicked the stuffing out of Simeone’s side and this was reflected by a changed atmosphere on the terraces.
Atletico failed to really get back into the game, but, Real Madrid hardly controlled proceedings either. It made for a rather uneventful affair where goal-scoring chances were few and far between while the quality of football left much to be desired.
Yet, the Merengues still found a way to prolong their spell over their city neighbours. Karim Benzema’s timely ball sent Di Maria on his way and his expert finish settled the game. Real Madrid had beaten them yet again while Atletico’s misery continued.
Simeone lamented after the game: “it was an opportunity lost”. And, it certainly was. But, Atleti will have another chance on May 17 in the Copa Del Rey Final to exact revenge. However, having lost to what effectively was Real Madrid’s B team, there will not be too much optimism amongst the Atleti faithful.
With the defeat, Atleti saw their chances of reclaiming second place evaporate. Yet, at least Champions League football seems a certainty for them, as it does for Real Sociedad.
In what was rightly billed as a Champions League qualification playoff, the Basque outfit welcomed Valencia to the Anoeta, knowing a win would put them in the driving seat for that precious fourth and final spot. And, Philippe Montanier’s men came out on top with a resounding 4-2 victory. They are now five points clear of fifth-placed Malaga with just five rounds remaining, meaning they have to be considered favourites to join Spain’s best amongst the elite of Europe next season. It is an incredible story for a team that just returned to the top-flight in 2010.
While La Real have enjoyed their best season since 2002-03 when they finished second, their Basque rivals Athletic Bilbao have endured a torturous campaign. Sitting in lowly 14th place and just seven points clear of the relegation zone, Marcelo Bielsa’s side have been in free-fall. Still, they will take some heart from their performance against Barcelona. After losing their lead to a Lionel Messi-inspired come-back, Athletic dramatically drew level in the dying moments of the game. It was Ander Herrera who steered the ball pass Victor Valdes to send the home crowd into raptures. It was a fitting finale to what was Barcelona’s last ever visit to the legendary San Mames stadium.