Diego Simeone called it “strange,” and confessed his Atletico Madrid team were outplayed. Carlo Ancelotti believed his Real Madrid side were superior – if not vastly – and deserved to win Sunday’s admittedly weird city derby.
But when Marcos Llorente stuck a bullet header underneath Andriy Lunin’s crossbar with 92:39 on the clock, the Santiago Bernabeu – roof closed to seal in the noise – fell silent, most of the 76,732 fans in attendance stunned that Los Blancos had not been able to see out a nervy 1-0 win in El Derbi Madrileno and thus move four points clear atop La Liga.
With Real Madrid pushing for a league and Champions League double – and Atletico’s focus firmly on ending its 11-year Copa del Rey drought – this derby was the first one in a while that arguably meant more to Los Blancos than it did to Los Rojiblancos. A point aside does not really help either team – Madrid could slip into second place next week, while Atleti missed an opportunity to widen the gap to fifth place – but there remains plenty to talk about even from a “decaffeinated” derby.
Marcos Llorente’s moment
Brahim Diaz’s stunning goal on 20 minutes looked for a while as if it would be the derby’s decisive strike, but it always felt as if Atletico could find a goal of their own if they were able to raise the intensity level to match Real Madrid.
Los Rojiblancos controversially had a 48th-minute equaliser ruled out, Stefan Savic’s header negated as Saul Niguez was ruled to have blocked Lunin’s view of the ball. And even in the final minutes, when Atleti lined up in a convoluted 3-4-3 with Llorente and Pablo Barrios as the central midfielders, the visitors moved into dangerous positions and knew they could destabilise the hosts’ fragile defense by winning aerial duels around the penalty area.
ＬＬＯＲＥＮＴＡＺＯ 🤩 pic.twitter.com/x5STQYgFPM
— Atlético de Madrid (@Atleti) February 6, 2024
Five of the 11 goals Atletico have scored against Real Madrid this season have come off a player’s head – including all four Atleti notched in the La Liga derbies. Llorente split the gap between Nacho and Dani Carvajal, his former teammates, to add his name to the list before pointing both index fingers skyward in memory of his late father-in-law.
Diego Simeone just about gets away with chopping and changing
Cholo Simeone has long been known – if not famed – for his “partido a partido” mantra. The slogan adorns the shirts that his players wore to celebrate their 2020/21 league title, and the coach often repeats the phrase weekly in press conferences – long after Atletico entered the European elite and began to compete annually for football’s biggest prizes.
But for someone who so regularly says he approaches everything on a game-by-game basis, Simeone sure appeared to be looking a few days ahead on Sunday night. El Cholo made aggressive substitutions – four before the hour mark, and a fifth before the 70th minute – and managed minutes with one eye clearly on Wednesday’s Copa del Rey semi-final first leg against Athletic Club.
It was one thing for Simeone to start Rodrigo Riquelme at left wing-back and eventually replace him due to some serious defensive struggles, but it was another entirely to see Atletico’s longtime coach yank Rodrigo de Paul and his captain Koke out of the action with Los Colchoneros still seeking an equaliser. These changes were made to ensure that the key midfielders would be ready to go at the Metropolitano on Wednesday against a rested Athletic.
Real Madrid’s defending comes in to question
Many suspected that this installment of the derby would be even-more complicated for Real Madrid after Antonio Rudiger suffered a blow to his thigh in the first half of Thursday’s win at Getafe. The knock ruled the rugged German out of Sunday’s contest, and it forced Ancelotti to turn to Carvajal as a makeshift partner for Nacho Fernandez.
But ironically, it wasn’t Carvajal who made major positional mistakes that put Real Madrid’s lead under threat multiple times. Instead, it was club captain Nacho, who lost track of Savic in the build-up to Atletico’s disallowed goal and was beaten to the ball by Memphis Depay before Llorente blew past him to score in second-half stoppage time.
“Real Madrid’s only healthy centre-back is the one who has defended the penalty area the worst,” Barcelona-based journalist Albert Ortega tweeted Sunday. “He is easily overcome in duels, he is unfocused and fragile. The draw bears his signature.”
El gol de Marcos Llorente es la guinda al desastroso partido de Nacho Fernández. Primero le ganó Depay y luego el propio Marcos Llorente.
El único central sano del Real Madrid ha sido el que peor ha defendido el área. Superado, desconcentrado y frágil. El empate lleva su firma.
— Albert Ortega (@AlbertOrtegaES1) February 4, 2024
Fairly or unfairly, Nacho’s performances have been under the microscope this season – as he has frequently been Madrid’s only healthy and experienced central defender, due to long-term injuries for Eder Militao and David Alaba. The 34-year-old has thrived in previous seasons as a rotational piece for multiple Madrid managers – but in 904 league minutes this season, he has often lacked a reliable partner and has been sent off twice after being shown just one red card in the previous 11 seasons combined. With a double still in play for Los Blancos, the club has to hope that Nacho gets it together and doesn’t make their decision to stand pat in January look like a foolish one.
First hosts second, and it will be spicy
Next Saturday in the Spanish capital will see Real Madrid welcome Girona to the Bernabeu amid (stop me if you’ve heard this before) rising tensions over refereeing in La Liga – and an opportunity for the Catalan club, two points behind Madrid, to take over first place in the second week of February.
Other than a five-goal outburst against struggling Sevilla two weeks ago, free-scoring Girona haven’t been so free-scoring of late. Michel’s men were knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Mallorca at the quarterfinal stage and have drawn twice in their past four league games. Girona were held to a goalless draw by Real Sociedad on Saturday night and had what might have been a Yangel Herrera winner controversially disallowed in the first half for an offside that occurred nearly 40 seconds before the ball crossed the line. As the game neared an end, outraged Girona fans were heard chanting “asi, asi, asi gana el Madrid” – “Like this, like this, like this, Real Madrid win.
🚨 Real Madrid's first reaction through its official channel after the Madrid derby:
"Atleti is the club most favored by referees in this league."
"Atleti won the 2020-21 league driven by clear refereeing errors. Among them, that handball by Felipe."
"This man who refereed… pic.twitter.com/kppSvIo60v
— Atletico Universe (@atletiuniverse) February 5, 2024
But Los Blancos are pretty aggrieved themselves after the derby. The club issued an explosive statement on Monday decrying Sanchez Martinez’s officiating at the Bernabeu and, amusingly, asking if he sleeps well at night – capping a week that also saw FC Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez claim the league is “adulterated” in favor of Real Madrid.
“Atleti is the club most favoured by referees in this league,” Real Madrid have claimed, perhaps trying to set the tone for matchday 24. “Madridismo already knows what’s going on: three out of four matches against Atletico Madrid have been decided by the Colchonero trident (Alberola Rojas, Cuadra Fernandez, and Sanchez Martinez), unapproachable for Madrid.”