With Barcelona cruising at the top of La Liga and nearly a double digit lead established over their closest rivals, Saturday’s fixture is something of a final opportunity for Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid to rescue their title hopes. Neither side has yet conceded that the League is beyond them, but surely the loser of this clash will just about be dead and buried as far as winning it goes.
Zinedine Zidane is set to lead Los Blancos in his first Madrid derby as Coach and it will be his toughest examination since he took over from Rafa Benitez last month. Even though he's not lost a game since his appointment, Real have seen Barcelona’s lead grow under Zizou and that’s mainly down to a winning streak that has seen the Catalans not slip once since that coaching change at Santiago Bernabeu.
Diego Simeone’s Atletico haven’t been in form lately and have fallen a bit off the pace since late January, but that won’t discourage them in their search for a third straight League win at the Bernabeu. The opportunity to also extend their domestic unbeaten streak against their great rivals to nine games will surely give great motivation to Los Colchoneros.
Under Zizou, Real have been near flawless at home with four wins from four and 20 goals scored but they’ll be facing a mean Atleti defence that has kept a season high nine clean sheets on the road this campaign. The best home attack against the best away defence means that something’s got to give on Saturday afternoon.
Zidane will be without the services of Pepe, Marcelo and Gareth Bale, who are all injured, but can welcome back Karim Benzema to the squad after his absence for Malaga. Contrary to their inconsistent away displays, Real play a lot quicker and fluid both in possession and transition at home and that may be exactly the way to go to break down an Atleti defence that will surely be stacked in numbers.
Simeone’s team has been struggling to score goals this year but surprisingly have had more success in doing so on the road than at Vicente Calderon, perhaps a good omen going into this game. Real have had defensive problems all season and Cholo will have to find ways to exploit that, even though his side has scored just once in their last three fixtures. They've entered a rough patch as of late, but Simeone is known for getting his team to rise to the occasion when it matters most and he’ll be hoping for more of that here.
Atletico are one of the most dangerous sides in Europe when it comes to attacking set pieces while Real have shown their vulnerabilities in defending them this term and in past derbies, so that might be a key area where the Rojiblancos can cause damage. That’s especially the case given the dry spell the likes of Antoine Griezmann and Luciano Vietto seem to be enduring.
Whatever happens when defence meets attack on Saturday, there will be a loser as far as the bigger picture is concerned. Whoever it is, their title challenge will be curtains.