It had been 14 long years of suffering; 26 games and not a single victory. The previous 10 games all ended the same; in defeat. So long had it gone on, they became known as El Pupas – the jinxed ones. But then it all changed one night in May 2013. A 2-1 victory at the Santiago Bernabeu over Los Blancos in the final of the Copa del Rey and Atleti broke the spell. The curse was dispelled. Finally.
A delighted Diego Simeone later said, “In many years’ time, this will be remembered.” Four years on and it’s right to remember this famous night, but it was the day after that Simeone said would be most “special”, and only now is it clear why.
Since this day, Atleti have no longer been plagued by an inferiority complex towards their much richer rivals from Chamartin. They no longer fear them. Instead, they now play with boldness and courage. They play with a clear identity of who they are and their performance on Saturday was no exception. “We were Atletico Madrid. There is no better example of what we are than what we showed today,” said a delighted Simeone.
Indeed, it was a great example. Atleti were by no means spectacular, but seldom are they. This is not who they are. Rather, they were efficient, defensively organised and effective going forward. This has been the basis for their success in recent years. Ahead of the game, there was growing questions marks about their ability to score as they only managed one goal in their previous three outings. But they also had not conceded any goals either. When your defence is so strong, one goal is usually enough to claim all three points, and this was the case again as they went on to win 1-0 for the eighth time this season.
But, more importantly, it was their third successive League win at the Bernabeu. They now have gone six games undefeated against Madrid in La Liga. The last time Los Merengues won the Madrid derby in the league was in April 2013, three years ago. The last time they won it at home was in 2012. During this time, Atleti have come up trumps on four occasions. In the last 13 matches played between the two sides in all competitions, only once have Madrid managed to win over the course of 90 minutes.
For the purpose of ensuring this is well understood, to repeat, all this has come following 14 years of suffering and 26 failed attempts. It’s a truly remarkable turnaround and made even more so given the gulf in financial clout of the two clubs. Real Madrid are the richest club in the world, taking in just under half a billion pounds in revenue for the 2014-15 season. Atleti, in comparison, raked in £143m. Madrid boast a squad of some of the most lavishly-paid football stars in the world that they have bought at a premium too. The same simply cannot be said of Los Colchoneros.
Saturday’s result was also significant because it truly ended Madrid’s hopes of winning the league. Not that they had any real hopes prior, but after last weekend’s draw away to Malaga, Coach Zinedine Zidane refused to accept that the League was over for his side. In the Press room on Saturday afternoon, before the question was even raised, he admitted: “The League is over. It was already difficult and I said yesterday if you drop more points it is even more so.”
For the first time, there was the suggestion in Zidane’s comments that he was not happy with his players. He spoke of their failure to get stuck in, track back and, most of all, their failure to capitalise on their chances and make their possession count; Madrid enjoyed 66 percent of the ball but had not a goal to show for it.
Not only did Zidane cast doubt over his players and their future, but, his own too. “Next year maybe there will be changes… maybe they’ll change the coach,” he told reporters. Telling words, especially from a man who knows the club more than most. If Real do not win anything this season – and the Champions League is their only hope – it would be true to form for Zidane to be replaced in the summer.
And if Zidane’s words were not worrying or damaging enough, Cristiano Ronaldo’s certainly were. Speaking straight after the game, Ronaldo quipped, “I don’t want to say that Jese, Lucas and Kovacic are not good players; they are very good, but…,” before adding, “If every player was at my level, maybe we would be top.”
It was a damning indictment of his teammates and one that, presumably, the club rushed to try and dispel by having Ronaldo clarify his statements later, insisting he meant only in terms of physical fitness and not ability. The damage was done already, but Ronaldo’s also pointed blame at the team’s medics, the club and took another pot shot at Rafa Benitez. Madrid’s title tilt has completely derailed and internally all does not seem well.
Atleti will have enjoyed watching all the fallout and even more so for being partly responsible for it; perhaps as much as winning again and extending their brilliant run of results against them.
Times have certainly changed. Not only are Atleti now getting the better of Los Blancos on a regular basis, but they have become everything that Madrid are not at present; a united team with a clear purpose and a clear identity. They are no longer jinxed nor are they suffering – if any team in the Spanish capital is now, it is Real Madrid.