Looking Ahead to the Madrid Derby

In case you hadn’t heard, I’m off to the Derbi Madrileño on Saturday! Understandably I’m very excited to be achieving one of my Six Football Dreams for 2019 and seeing two of the best teams in Europe go head-to-head with the pride of the city at stake.

Ahead of the big game, here are a few things to look out for!

1. Is this even Real Madrid’s priority?

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The return of the Champions League looms large

The Derbi Madrileño comes right in the middle of a hectic seven days for Real Madrid. On Wednesday night they travel to Barcelona for the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final. Then next Tuesday they are in Amsterdam for the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie against Ajax.

So is it possible that Madrid manager Santiago Solari could be tempted to prioritise the knockout competitions, with an eight point gap to Barcelona in first looking particularly imposing?

Nothing is certain in the crazy world of managing Real Madrid, but Solari probably sees winning a trophy as his best chance of being allowed to stay on past the summer. Get past Barça and Madrid would be favourites in a Copa final against Valencia or Betis (even if los verdiblancos have home advantage) and if ever there was a group of players who knew how to win a Champions League in spite of indifferent domestic form, it’s this one.

Atlético’s own Champions League showdown with Juventus is looming on the horizon, but they have a free week both before and after Saturday’s match. Time to lick their wounds after the defeat at Betis on Sunday and plot a return to winning ways.

2. Simeone looks to take another scalp.

Mourinho. Ancelotti, Zidane, Lopetegui.

Of all the Real Madrid bosses he has faced, the only one Diego Simeone hasn’t defeated is Rafa Benitez (surely enough of a reason for him to get a second chance at the Bernabéu?) and he’ll want to add Solari to that list on Saturday.

Watching Simeone on the touchline is entertainment in itself and it’s great that he has been able to stay at Atlético and build something. It’s a perfect fit, which would be impossible to replicate elsewhere.

3. The Ex-Factor.

It’s safe to say that Thibaut Courtois’ move to Real Madrid in the summer didn’t go down very well with his former employers. Although he was only there on loan from Chelsea, Courtois became a huge part of Diego Simeone’s early success as Atlético manager, starring in the 2012 Europa League and 2013 Copa del Rey triumphs and keeping 22 clean sheets in 37 appearances during Atleti’s 2013/14 title-winning campaign.

Courtois: From hero to zero at the Wanda

When the Wanda Metropolitano was opened, a decision was made to have a ‘Walk of Legends’ in front of the ground where notable players from Atlético’s history would be honoured with a plaque. However, the qualification required to earn a plaque was set at the slightly arbitrary mark of ‘Play 100’ games. This meant the inclusion of some slightly questionable ‘legends’ but also that of Hugo Sánchez, undoubtedly a great player for Atlético but also reviled for leaving to join Madrid. His plaque became the target of frequent acts of vandalism and before the ink was dry on his Real Madrid contract, Courtois’ one had too.

The Belgian ‘keeper is sure to get quite the welcome on Saturday.

Lining up against him will probably be Alvaro Morata, the latest player to cross the Madrid divide – again albeit via a spell at Chelsea.

Morata was a ball boy at the Calderon and played for Atlético’s youth teams. In spite of this, he ended up joining Real Madrid’s youth system and rose through the ranks to become a valuable squad player.

A move to Juventus for two seasons saw him get more playing time and famously score in both legs of the Champions League semi-final in 2015 to knock Madrid out. A year later they activated their buy-back option and Morata was an important squad member as they won both La Liga and the Champions League, finishing as their second highest scorer in all competitions behind Ronaldo.

However, his move to Chelsea, which was supposed to be his big breakthrough as a top-class number nine, quickly turned sour with his form and confidence evaporating over his 18 months in England to the extent that he went from a guaranteed starter, to not even making Spain’s World Cup squad.

The move to Atlético seems to make sense, with Costa injured and Kalinič unconvincing, Atleti need a centre forward and Morata needs games and a manager who believes in him again. He’ll also have to win over the fans, many of whom weren’t entirely supportive of his signing. Nothing a winner against the old enemy wouldn’t fix I’m sure!

4. Vinicius Jr: Time to believe the hype?

Vinicius celebrates his first goal for Real Madrid

Plenty of eyebrows were raised at the fee Real Madrid paid for Vinicius Jr and the expectations placed on him in the summer.

It made sense for him to start off with Castilla, given his age and how notoriously difficult it is for young South American players to adapt straight away to life in one of the big leagues. But more often than not, his lack of game time was used as one of the sticks with which to beat former manager Julen Lopetegui.

I got my first proper glimpse of Vinicius in action in December, when he started the Copa del Rey tie against Melilla at the Bernabéu. He looked raw and lacked a bit of composure – his goal was somewhat fortuitous considering he had missed s number of even better chances. But the potential was there for all to see.

With a number of absences in the attacking department during the hectic month of January, Solari has trusted him to perform when called upon. And he has delivered!

With seven assists, he is Madrid’s top provider and he has been a major factor in Karim Benzema’s return to form, providing the key pass for three of the Frenchman’s goals in 2019. Even with Gareth Bale fit enough to return to the starting XI against Alavés, Vinicius was named alongside him and Benzema in a front three and he was involved in the opening goal and then scored the game clinching second himself – his first in La Liga.

Two big games this week, a Nou Camp clásico and the derby, could be the time for him to really announce his arrival.

5. Will it even be good?

Will it be Happy Griezmann or Sad Griezmann come 6pm on Saturday?

These days the Derbi Madrileño seems to follow a familiar pattern.

The European ties have tended to be the more exciting ones while the league meetings have been tight, scrappy affairs. Since Atlético’s emphatic 4-0 win in February 2015, six of the seven league meetings have contained two goals or fewer.

Low-scoring draws have become this fixture’s specialty and strangely Atlético actually seem to have more success playing at the Bernabéu – unbeaten there in La Liga since the 2012/13 season, winning three in a row between 2013 and 2016.

They’ve also *never* won a derby at the Wanda – ok, so there has only been one ever (a tepid 0-0 draw last season) but that’s something Simeone and Co. will be keen to put right.

And while I have suggested that this might not be Real Madrid’s priority, Santiago Solari will be well aware that a win would take his side above their local rivals, which would be a significant psychological blow.

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