By Cillian Shields l @pile_of_eggs
When Real Madrid are at their best, they are comfortably better than Atletico Madrid. The trouble is, they have not always been at their best this season, but in Saturday’s derby they put on a dominant performance that reduced the Colchoneros to shadows of their normal selves.
Diego Simeone’s side had only conceded two league goals all season prior to this weekend, both inconsequential strikes in 6-1 and 3-1 victories when the Los Rojiblancos were winning by more than two at the time. It took Zinedine Zidane’s side 15 minutes to end that wonderful defensive record and put Atleti trailing in a La Liga game for the first time this season. But even before Casemiro’s opening headed goal from a corner, and for the rest of the half, Los Blancos suffocated their neighbours with a level of intensity and control of possession that prevented Atleti from getting into the contest.
Madrid have an attitude problem – as shown many times this season when they have failed to show up for games that seemed straightforward on paper. Home defeats to Cádiz, Alavés, and a Shakhtar Donetsk side ravaged with Covid-19 absences have shown this. But conversely, when presented with a marquee fixture, against a glamour opponent or with the pressure of needing to win, they can turn themselves into one of the best teams in the world, with the biggest difference seemingly little more than a change of mentality.
Little more than a week ago there were whispers of the next three fixtures being make-or-break for Zidane. They faced Sevilla away, a Champions League clash with Borussia Mönchengladbach in which they could have been eliminated at the group stages, and the Madrid derby against league-leading Atletico. The pressure was on, with the eyes of the world watching. Win. Win. Win.
Karim Benzema admitted as much in comments after the midweek European fixture, saying “When we’ve got the will to win, you can see it, we score goals and nobody can hurt us.”
While Madrid got away with a bit of luck against the Andalusians, their competitive attitude was palpable from the first moments against Borussia and Atleti. The Germans never got a foothold for the full game, and a similar story was developing against Simeone’s charges until some second half substitutions changed the tempo of the match significantly.
Key to Madrid’s derby dominance was their midfield masterclass on the ball. The classic trio of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric were in top form, linking with Benzema who popped up all over the pitch to create overloads and help his side camp in Atleti’s half. Zidane called his compatriot the “complete footballer” after the match which saw Benzema overtake Roberto Carlos as the foreign player with the most appearances in the club’s history, with 528. “What he’s doing is tremendous,” his manager praised.
Many times over the years when Madrid need late rallies, Casemiro is always active in the opposition penalty area, winning headers, creating chaos, inflicting damage and deciding games. For a defensive player, the Brazilian comes up with hugely important goals and contributions to goals very often for his team.
The midfielders have certainly had their off games this year, but on Saturday were too fast and could not be caught. “They caused us damage with their intensity,” Simeone admitted in the television interview after the game. “We drowned them in their own half,” Dani Carvajal added.
The midfield also successfully separated Atleti’s front pairing of Joao Félix and Luis Suárez from the rest of their team. The forwards, who have been in fine form otherwise this season, were completely ineffective and both were substituted in the second half.
Luis Suárez’s limitations were laid bare by this game. One of the best marksmen La Liga has ever seen was completely removed from the encounter, as he is unable to affect games when he is dragged into starting positions so deep, as forced by Real Madrid’s territorial supremacy. Los Rojiblancos could not get balls into the Madrid box, or to the feet of Suárez in the attacking third at all.
On came Lemar, Lodi, and Correa, and between them, they grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck after the restart. Thomas Lemar was Atletico Madrid’s record signing when they bought him in 2018 but has not shown the form he had with Monaco or the French national team ever since he joined. Not for the first time with an attacking player, Simeone has found it difficult to incorporate Lemar into the team and get him to perform with any sort of regularity to the highest of his ability.
However, the tide seems to be turning in the last few weeks for the World Cup winner. He is proven adept at manning either wing as well as a central role behind a striker and has popped up with a couple of goals in recent weeks. Unfortunately for everybody in red-and-white, he fluffed Atleti’s biggest chance of the match to score, after weakly side-footing a low cross that he did not look like he expected to reach him at all. With no control, he could not aim the ball on target and Madrid breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Shortly after, with the wind behind Atleti’s backs in search of an equalizing goal, the contest was all but ended with a phenomenally clean strike from Carvajal. The right back’s superb half-volley from distance struck the post only to bounce off the back of the outstretched Jan Oblak, only to go in for an own goal, and the short-lived Colchonero revival was over before it really got going.
Crisis? Real Madrid news is now focused on them sitting three points off the top of the table. They can move level with Real Sociedad with their game in hand, but Atletico Madrid could potentially pull six ahead of their neighbours if they win their games in hand. History suggests they could well have more off days again in the season and drop further points, but perhaps the pressure applied from a genuine title challenge from their rivals could again spur them on to the greatness they are most definitely capable of.
– They came agonizingly close to earning their first win of the season last week when they were leading away to Granada 3-1 until the 88th minute before they were dramatically pegged back to 3-3, but Huesca finally tasted victory in Primera for the first time this campaign in week 13 with a 1-0 win over Deportivo Alavés, ending the Basques’ six-game unbeaten streak. Oddly enough, they managed it without two of their best forwards, as Sandro Ramírez was missing and Rafa Mir started on the bench.
Míchel’s side have played much better than what their results suggest, with understat putting them 13th in the expected points table, 3.80 points behind what statistics suggest they should have earned this season already. Instead, they sit 19th, but are certainly looking up, with more than enough talent to fight their way out of the drop zone and avoid relegation in La Liga for the first time in their history.
But the biggest storyline of this match belonged to Javier Ontiveros. The young wide forward scored a magnificent solo goal to decide the encounter and revealed a photograph of his grandmother to the cameras as the celebration. In the post-match interview, he broke down into tears, explaining that his grandmother is in hospital suffering from Covid-19, and that he and his family loved her and wanted to have her home.
– Does Jules Koundé have powers of foresight? Is that what makes him so good? Lining up in the wall for a free kick against Getafe to be struck by David Timor, the French defender abandoned his position as the Geta midfielder was shaping up to shoot and instead ran to take up a new spot on the goal line to his goalkeeper’s left-hand side. The shot slipped through the wall, caught Bono unsuspecting, but there he was, on the line, ready to clear the danger in the right place at the right time.
The mystic move helped Sevilla come away from south Madrid with a 1-0 win despite registering no shots on target. They had to battle hard against a physical team and count their luck at both ends of the pitch, as most referees would have awarded the home side a penalty for a foul on Arambarri by Fernando at 0-0, and the decider came from a bizarre and unlucky header from Getafe defender Etxeita from a tantalising Suso cross. For Sevilla, it’s a much-needed win to keep up the pace at the top end up the table at a time they’re struggling for rhythm, while Getafe are one of the sides that have won the fewest number of points since football returned from the three-month enforced break, with only four wins in that time.
– Real Sociedad and Eibar played out a fantastically competitive derby in which two teenagers shined especially bright and stole the headlines. Ander Barrenetxea, take a bow. The 18-year-old winger’s fantastic strike was the crown jewel in a brilliant performance from him, creating danger every time he got on the ball. He could have had a second goal before the break too, but for a strong hand from Eibar keeper Marko Dmitrović, who is also enjoying a fantastic season.
At the other end of the pitch, 19-year-old Bryan Gil had one of his most mature performances in La Liga to date, on the back of several weeks now where he’s been influential. The winger on-loan from Sevilla has been creating havoc when his teammates have been able to get him on the ball, and although he will not be credited with the assist, it was his action that opened up the txuri-urdin defence to level the score. Both he and Barrenetxea are two of the most exciting young talents emerging in Spain this year, being trusted with a lot of playing time, and thanking their managers by delivering the goods.
– Valladolid’s €4m summer signing, Shon Weissman, is off the mark with his first two goals for the club in their epic 3-2 win over Osasuna. The forward scored 37 goals in the Austrian league last season, and both opened and finished the scoring this weekend to drag La Pucela out of the relegation zone.
What a strike from Ruibal! 😍
Betis back on level terms 🟢⚪ pic.twitter.com/msCh5Myg8G
— Premier Sports 📺 (@PremierSportsTV) December 13, 2020
Goal of the week: La Liga saw numerous brilliant strikes this weekend that could have easily taken this accolade on any given matchday. Aitor Ruibal’s elegant volley for Real Betis against Villarreal was a contender, while Ander Barrenetxea’s superb effort will likely make it onto some end-of-season lists. But given the significance, quality, and emotion of it, Javi Ontiveros’s marvellous winner for Huesca over Alavés is this week’s goal of the week.