Atletico Hope to Repeat Copa Del Rey Drama in Madrid Derby
Until May of this year, and for nigh-on a decade-and-a-half, the Madrid derby was a thoroughly unappealing fixture for neutrals due to its utter predictability.
The world was tipped on its head, however, in the final of last season's Copa Del Rey. Having discarded previous scripts, Atletico refused to lose and instead snatched a dramatic and well-deserved win for the first time in 25 meetings, taking home a trophy to boot.
Cast in a new light, Saturday evening's clash at the Bernabeu has renewed appeal and is genuinely tantalising.
For once, it is Atletico who sit highest in the La Liga table—with a perfect record—and for once, everyone associated with the Rojiblancos can feel that victory is not merely a dream waiting to be shattered on kickoff.
The lead-up to the game will inevitably focus on Real's glittering forward line. There's good reason, too. Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema not only cost the club a nonsensical £200 million, but all boast the directness, technique and eye for goal that keeps spectators on the edge of their seats.
However, the visitors' biggest weapon will be the man likely to line up just behind them: Isco. The summer signing from Malaga has been Real's best performer this season, impressing so much that former Real great Zinedine Zidane paid him the compliment of comparing him with himself.
Given Isco's silk-booted touch and deft creative instincts, the parallel is certainly applicable. The Spaniard has already netted four goals and laid on 12 chances this season, but his true worth comes with the speed and relentlessness of his subtle promptings from the engine room.
His debut showing against Real Betis set the tone for Real's midfield. With Xabi Alonso currently sidelined, Isco has become an even more critical part of Real's gameplan.
With Real's front three (as well as Angel Di Maria) generally left to their own devices in terms of directly assisting and scoring the team's goals, Isco's role is to play the pass before the pass—the one that unlocks the defence, that puts the wide man clear down the inside channel with teammates awaiting delivery.
For Atletico's rearguard, neutralising Ronaldo and co will be very difficult, but cutting off their supply line is the smartest tactic. Atletico's two deepest midfielders, probably Tiago and Mario Suarez, will surely be instructed to constantly press Isco and the surrounding space.
Should Atletico successfully resist Real's attacking threat, they could find joy down the other end of the field.
Real Madrid have not kept a clean sheet since their second La Liga fixture, while Atletico have averaged three goals a game in the league so far.
Though David Villa is yet to truly catch fire, Diego Costa has demonstrated exactly why Liverpool were so keen to acquire his services in the close-season, with seven predatory goals in six La Liga fixtures.
With all his support options—Villa, Arda Turan and Cristian Rodriguez—able to supply whipped crosses or nuanced through-balls, and Real's centre-back pairing of Pepe and Sergio Ramos susceptible to rash decisions, Costa will fancy his chances of continuing his hot streak.
As good a side as they may be, Real—as demonstrated by Wednesday's fortunate escape from jail against Elche—are some way from being a flawless one.
Having finally rid themselves of the curse of perennial defeat, Atletico—as the table-topping underdogs—will enter the game with a buoyant mentality lacking in recent years.
With a fine start behind them, a strong attack and opposition still in construction, there’s a decent, if slightly improbable, chance that the hosts could end Saturday night with their faultless league record still intact.
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