It was no surprise to see Real Madrid ease past their city rivals last night, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s double strike from the penalty spot giving Los Blancos a 5-0 aggregate victory over Atletico Madrid and booking a place in the final where, in all likelihood, they will face Barcelona in the season’s third Clasico. The Copa has been devalued over recent years – except, of course, by whoever wins it – but a Clasico final always restores its kudos.
Ancelotti had presided over a 3-0 first-leg victory at Santiago Bernabeu that perhaps gave the first indications that Diego Simeone’s Atleti were about to crumble under the mounting pressure of keeping pace with Spanish football’s dual Goliaths. Atletico’s unexpected capitulation against Almeria on Saturday reinforced that suggestion and last night’s 2-0 win for Real Madrid at the Vicente Calderon confirmed it.
Saturday’s 4-2 win over Villarreal demonstrated Real Madrid’s resilience as well as their defensive vulnerability. Like Barcelona, they are prone to conceding sloppy goals but are always capable of scoring plenty more. The midfield – typically Luca Modric, Angel Di Maria and Xabi Alonso but with Isco and Asier Illaramendi waiting in the wings – is loaded with threat, capable of running the game, stretching opponents and relentlessly supplying ammunition to the front line.
Ancelotti’s men possess an impressive array of attacking talent. Alongside Ronaldo, the forwards are irresistible. Karim Benzema is back to his best after a poor start to the campaign, while Gareth Bale can raid the flanks and slice through defences to be either scorer or provider, with both characteristics in evidence against Villarreal.
In defence, Sergio Ramos is equally capable of brilliance or blunder and always liable to garner yellow (and red) cards, but again Ancelotti has options with the returning Raphael Varane and the much improved Pepe alongside Fabio Coentrao, Marcelo, Alvaro Arbeloa, and Daniel Carvajal. Lastly, Diego Lopez has grown in stature to keep Iker Casillas sidelined, with the national No.1 returning for the Copa and Champions League.
With these vast resources at his disposal, how realistic is it to believe that Ancelotti can emulate Pep Guardiola’s 2008-09 Barcelona side by securing three pieces of silverware by the end of May? The answer to that question may be clearer by the end of March, a month that sees another city derby at the Calderon, a second Clasico at the Bernabeu and the completion of a Champions League Last 16 tie against Schalke.
Of course, Barcelona also harbour ambitions of treble success, and there is absolutely nothing to choose between their respective records in La Liga. Barca face more difficult Champions League opponents, however, with the prospect of free-scoring Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium a formidable one. Yet with Madrid and Barca so evenly matched in terms of performance, star quality and strength in depth both come into play.
A glance at the Real Madrid bench, regularly warmed by such talents as Isco, Illaramendi and the emerging Alvaro Morata and Jese Rodriguez, compares favourably with their opposite numbers at Barcelona and, on current form at least, gives Los Blancos a competitive advantage. Turning that into silverware represents a major challenge, but one that remains within their gift.