Man-to-man marking: Madrid playmaker Modric will be the key to victory for los Blancos against their city rivals on Wednesday
Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid go head-to-head in the first leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final at the Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday night, and we preview that much-anticipated clash by closely examining some of the fierce city rivals’ most recent displays.
Both sides go into the contest in great form, with Atleti currently leading La Liga by just three points from both Barcelona and Los Blancos, but in this cup tie there will be no points at stake—just a place in the final at the end of the campaign.
And with the Spanish cup-holders having already beaten Madrid at home in the league earlier this season, Carlo Ancelotti’s side will be desperate for revenge in this first leg, while both teams will have been working on getting their tactics absolutely spot-on in the pre-match buildup.
So let’s now look at the tape to determine just where this particular individual matchup could be won and lost Wednesday night...
What will the result of Wednesday night's Copa del Rey semi-final first leg be?
It is fair to say that the technically gifted Croatian endured a tough debut campaign in the Spanish capital last time out, following his £33 million move to the Bernabeu from Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 2012.
With Germany international Sami Khedira often the preferred partner for Xabi Alonso in front of the Madrid back four under Jose Mourinho in the previous season, Modric struggled to exert his influence on proceedings in Madrid.
However, the 28-year-old has now formed an excellent understanding with Alonso in the centre of Madrid’s midfield after the season-ending knee injury that Khedira picked up in mid-November, with the result being Modric now producing the best football of his career in Spain.
Firstly, Modric and Alonso’s initial starting positions against Atleti will be fairly deep as they look to protect their back line, as seen below in Madrid’s Liga contest at Osasuna in December.
However, the advantage of having Modric rather than Khedira as Alonso’s partner in central midfield is that, by giving the Croatia international the licence and freedom to be the one to break forward, Madrid are now a far more dangerous threat from this area of the field than they ever used to be.
This is witnessed below by the driving run forward into the Osasuna penalty area by the twinkle-toed playmaker.
In fact, it is safe to say that, during the past few months, most of Madrid’s best attacking moments have tended to originate from the feet of Modric, while Ancelotti’s team have also appeared a far more balanced unit all around as a result of this injury-enforced tactical switch.
And this last point can be demonstrated clearly in the decisive role that Modric played in Jese’s winner against Valencia at Mestalla in La Liga back in December. The midfield player’s supreme vision, touch and awareness from a central position just outside the opposition penalty area were the key factors in the young striker’s 82nd-minute strike.
Parking the bus at the Bernabeu
Atletico head coach Diego Simeone is renowned for the extensive and exhaustive work that he does on the training ground with his players in preparation for matches.
In fact, it is part of the reason why the Argentinian has been able to transform a side—with virtually the exact same group of players—from languishing in mid-table when he took charge at the Vicente Calderon just over two years ago into one that is now top of the pile in Spain.
And like all successful teams, the secret to Atleti’s recent success is that they are desperately hard to beat, built around a solid and consistent spine comprising the likes of Thibaut Courtois, Gabi and Diego Costa.
However, it is Atletico’s watertight back four who are the real foundation and basis to their meteoric rise up the table of late, with this outfit proudly boasting the best defence in both La Liga and the UEFA Champions League at present.
As a result, Simeone’s men now go into matches knowing that all they need to do is create an opening for red-hot striker Costa to put away, and they will, in all likelihood, go on to win the match.
And it is that impressive back line, as well as the midfielders in front of the defence, that will be the centre of attention at the Bernabeu come Wednesday night, as the visitors look to stifle the home team’s attacking play and hit them on the counter-attack as they did so successfully in their 1-0 win at Madrid back in November.
As such, Atleti’s game plan against Madrid is likely to involve similar tactics to those which Simeone deployed recently in his side’s goalless draw with Liga champions Barcelona in the Spanish capital.
And that will mean Atletico being very narrow in a compact central midfield area in order to force their opponents to move the ball out to the less-threatening flanks, as we can see they did with great success against Barca in January in the below shots.
However, even when the ball does then get played out wide, the whole Atleti defensive unit instantly shifts across in order to cover that new threat from the wing.
In that contest, the home side managed to keep a clean sheet against the ever-threatening Catalans; however, it needed a show of impressive concentration and discipline from all 11 players, including the front men, too, to achieve that feat.
And it will require a similar demonstration of defensive organisation at the Bernabeu Wednesday if the visitors are to record the same result, which would then put them in the driving seat going into the decisive second leg at home next week.