It’s here, perhaps Real Madrid’s final chance at defending La Liga. The champions travel to the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano to face league leaders Atletico Madrid at 16:15 CET, with everything on the line.
Monday’s disastrous draw against Real Sociedad moved Madrid down to third in the standings, and following Barcelona’s win at Osasuna yesterday evening, it now makes it obligatory for Los Merengues to clinch all three points on the turn of their city rivals. Whenever the big games come around, Madrid tend to play their best football, including both wins versus Atletico and Barcelona in the first half of the season. But there’s a different feeling about this, and Diego Simeone and his squad will know their historically superior rivals are there for the taking. A win might well bury Zinedine Zidane’s title hopes.
In contrast to Madrid’s disappointing result at home to La Real, Atletico had to travel to Villarreal, and boy did they record a positive result, with Joao Felix firing himself up for the Madrid Derby in some style, as his delightful strike sealed a 2-0 victory for the leaders. Atleti had been on somewhat of a blurry run, which has given the title race a new lease of life. They’ve only won twice in their last five league games, so they have been shaking, in a recent run which includes two draws to Celta Vigo and Levante, and a defeat to Levante too – who they faced in back to back league games. Could Madrid capitalise on this unsure leadership of Atletico? Even if Madrid do take the three points at the Wanda, they’ll remain two points behind Atletico, who will also still have a game in hand on Los Blancos.
The key talking point
Simeone has been chopping and changing his set-ups in recent games, at times due to players missing through Covid-19, and some missing through injuries. The return of Kieran Trippier from a lengthy ban will allow him to return to his traditional and preferred 3-5-2, which gives Yannick Carrasco and Trippier the freedom as wing-backs, who contribute heavily in attacking transitions. That’s when Atletico are at their best, because it essentially gives them a four man attack with a front-two, and they have either Joao Felix or Marcos Llorente in that free-role making those late runs in-behind.
We’re likely to see a 4-4-2 from Zidane at the Wanda. Karim Benzema and Rodrygo Goes are going to be up-front and the midfield will gain Federico Valverde who could man-mark Joao, or help with attacking transitions for Zidane, plugging the gap between all three fields of the pitch. Benzema and Rodrygo both have the qualities to drop deep and act as links, and a four man midfield will give Ferland Mendy more freedom on the left, and Luka Modric more opportunities to play closer to the front two. Madrid’s aim is simple, play their triangular combinations, hoping those patterns drag Atletico out of their defensive shape to then get in behind via Benzema or Rodrygo. It’s unlikely to be an affair seeing Madrid try to hit Atleti on the counter attack, if they are going to hurt the league leaders, it’ll be about pulling them out of their shape or to flood the overlap with Lucas Vazquez, Rodrygo and Fede combining on the right.
It’ll be interesting to see who Simeone goes with, either Thomas Lemar or Saul Niguez. The Frenchman should get the nod on his current form and on how helpful he is to the chance creation. But the one thing about Atletico is that there are creeks in their play, and in how frequently they’re creating serious openings, particularly in the last month during which they’ve dropped seven points.
Central defender Jose Gimenez is out with an adductor injury, but Carrasco and Trippier are back in the squad and are likely to start this afternoon. Otherwise, there aren’t many issues for Simeone, and he even has Joao back scoring since his recovery from testing positive and isolating due to Covid.
As for the visitors, Fede, Rodrygo and Eder Militao returned on Monday, and Benzema passed a late fitness test to be with the squad for this game. Zidane is still without Sergio Ramos, Eden Hazard, Dani Carvajal and Marcelo, and Mariano Diaz has now joined the injury list.
The last time they met?
It was during matchday 13, as Madrid won 2-0 at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano. A 15th minute goal from Casemiro from a Toni Kroos delivery opened the scoring, before Madrid sealed the win with what eventually went down as a Jan Oblak own-goal.