Saturday 9th February – Madrid Derby day!
Ever since I picked up my ticket midway through January, I had been looking forward to this day. My first properly big Spanish match. I’ve seen both of these teams play many times down the years (slightly more often since I moved to Madrid) but never had the opportunity to see them against each other. Until now! At €120 for the ticket, it wasn’t cheap, but I was hopeful it would be an unforgettable experience.
I said at the start of the year that going to a fixture like this was one of my goals for the year, so there was a real sense of excitement as I woke up.
A short run was followed by what has become a Saturday morning tradition – a trip to my nearest newsstand to pick up a copy of Marca and then retiring to a café to read it.
Lots of previews for the game, focusing on how a draw wasn’t any good for either team and on the various individuals who would have an impact on the day. One particularly interesting angle was the friendship between Simeone and Solari which of course would be put on hold for a few hours in the afternoon.
After a short lunch, it was time to get going…
On The Way
Anyone who has read this blog before will know my issues around getting to the Wanda Metropolitano. Line 7 is long, slow, crowded and a pain to get to from my area of Madrid. But I’ve had a breakthrough!
Rather than taking Line 7, I decided to take Line 2 to Las Rosas. This allowed me to take a leisurely stroll down Calle de Suecia, past the bars and restaurants which were doing a roaring trade pre-match.
It is a good 20 minute walk to the stadium from there though, so it might not be the best route to take on days when the weather isn’t quite so pleasant. But for those looking to soak up a bit of atmosphere, I’d recommend this over the direct to the stadium route and it has the advantage of not being as crowded on the Metro either.
Once I got to the bottom of the road, the stadium became visible and all that remained was to walk across the building site/wasteland which separates it from the main road and my journey was complete.
Outside the ground, there was a real contrast in how two former Atlético players’ ‘legends’ plaques were treated. Former captain Isacio Calleja, who had died during the week, was honoured with a large wreath of flowers placed over his.
On the other hand, Thibaut Courtois, who committed the cardinal sin of signing for Real Madrid, saw his covered in an increasingly bizarre selection of rubbish, including toy rats, beer cans and glasses and the lid of a tin of Marks and Spencer’s Scottish shortbread.
The thing I was most shocked by was the number of Real Madrid fans wearing colours freely mixing with the Atlético fans. The idea of this happening before a similarly big game back home is almost unheard of and even less so the idea of fans wearing colours in the opposition end of the stadium.
Spanish football has a much more relaxed attitude to segregation than in the UK, something I discovered on one of my first trips to watch Depor at the Estadio Riazor, when my section was mostly packed out with loud, passionate Sporting Gijon fans. I still felt safe enough to celebrate Depor’s injury-time equaliser though.
Anyway, into the stadium I went…
Plenty of people were already in their seats by the time I found mine, high up behind the goal at the southern end of the Wanda Metropolitano. Enough to make the traditional ear-piercing whistles (I do miss the good old British ‘Boooo’) when the Real Madrid players came out for the warm-up.
Minutes later there was a totally different response as the Atlético players emerged from the dressing room. I’ll just let the fans show you themselves…
Welcome as the Atlético players come out to warm up. pic.twitter.com/bIpTDeZkXw
— Mis viajes en fútbol (@viajesenfutbol) February 9, 2019
As the players emerged for the start of the match, they were greeted in traditional style by a display from the Atlético fans. There have been some seriously impressive ones in the recent history of the fixture but this one wasn’t one of the more spectacular ones. But the message was clear. A red and white shirt (bearing the club crest from the time Atleti merged with the Air Force side to become Atlético Aviacion in 1939 – a move which pretty much saved the club from going out of business) with the words MADRID CASTIZO Y ROJIBLANCO flanking it.
The First Half
The game began in a frantic fashion, Atlético pressed high up the pitch, with Simeone’s decision to go with Lemar and Correa on the wings signalling his intent. But they didn’t really test Courtois, whose most difficult challenge in the early stages was coping with the hail of abuse (and toy rats) coming from the stand behind him.
Real Madrid had weathered that early storm unscathed and in their first good period of the game, they went in front. There was some confusion as a corner was awarded and taken quickly but the referee ordered a retake. This time Kroos whipped it into the mixer, Ramos flicked it on to the unmarked Casemiro, who acrobatically beat the advancing Oblak. First blood to the visitors.
But Atlético came roaring back and were level within ten minutes. Correa played Griezmann through and he beat Courtois with a low placed shot and wheeled away to celebrate with the fans. But his celebrations were cut short… the referee had asked for a VAR review. At first I assumed it was for a potential offside (my experience with Irish League linesman being that they just assume that a player is offside 9/10 times that there’s someone with a clean run through on goal) but there was no way that Griezmann could have been off. It was only watching replays later in the afternoon that I realised the doubt was over the Correa challenge on Vincius which started the move.
It was another challenge on the Brazilian teenager which would prove one of the games most controversial moments – and there were plenty of them to choose from! With 41 minutes gone, his progress into the area was halted by a clumsy challenge from José María Giménez. The referee pointed to the spot, but only after calling upon VAR again. There was no argument about it being a foul, but the Atleti players were adamant that it had been outside the area and even though the video evidence seemed to back them up, the referee still awarded the penalty.
Ramos stepped up and the question on everyone’s lips was “Is he going to try a panenka?” Alas he didn’t have the nerve to try it in front of a stadium full of Atlético fans, but still squeezed it past Oblak and into the bottom corner.
Frustrations had started to boil over on and off the pitch and it was no surprise that there were reports of a number of fights breaking out around the ground between the two sets of fans. There was definitely some kind of incident going on underneath where I was sitting, going by the reaction of the fans in the lower tier but it was out of sight.
The home fans mood would hardly have been improved by checking the replays of the major first half incidents which showed the foul on Vinicius had actually been outside the area.
Surely things could only get better in the second half? Well…
The Second Half
After the restart, it was again Atlético who were on the front foot and they thought they had found the equaliser on 54 minutes as Morata was clean through and beat Courtois with a delicious lob but no… VAR again. After another lengthy delay, the referee’s decision came down in favour of Real Madrid. Morata had been judged offside – an extremely marginal decision – and the score remained 2-1.
Morata was again in the thick of it when he was bundled over by Casemiro but in the biggest shock of the day, the referee didn’t consult VAR instead preferring to trust his own judgement that there was nothing wrong with the challenge.
Although Atlético had been looking the more likely scorers, Madrid always posed a threat on the break and it was one particularly efficient counter-attack which killed the contest. Modric slipped the ball through to Gareth Bale, on as a sub for Vinicius, and he applied a cool finish to score his 100th Real Madrid goal. With that, the belief drained away from Atlético and they were forced to play out the remaining minutes with only ten men after a needless second booking for Thomas.
The seats around me had already emptied by the time the final whistle blew.
Although the Ultras down below continued to sing and chant for their heroes, the atmosphere elsewhere was somewhat more subdued. Nothing quite like a chastening defeat by the nearest and dearest to ruin an afternoon.
It was a game of fine margins. Had the controversial calls by the referee gone the other way, the result could have been vastly different. But it has to be said, Atlético didn’t play well, aside from their initial pressing at the start of each half. Defensively they were suspect, which is most uncharacteristic for them and they didn’t really seem to have an answer to Vinicius Jr’s pace on the left flank.
Simeone gambled with his attacking selection but both Correa and Lemar disappointed, while Thomas Partey played possibly one of his worst games for the club, capping things off with a senseless, but merited red card.
It’s hard not to feel for the luckless Alvaro Morata, denied a clear penalty on his debut at Betis the week before, then the unwanted quadruple of goal ruled out for the most marginal of marginal offsides, another penalty waved away, booking for an innocuous tangle with Ramos and finally, being hooked for Kalinić. His relationship with Antoine Griezmann is still developing, but it’s clear he needs more game time to settle in at Atleti. Whether he gets that time, with Diego Costa coming back from injury, is another question.
And as for Real Madrid, they weren’t outstanding, but they didn’t need to be. I thought Benzema and Modric were both outstanding, the former’s movement off the ball is something you can’t really pick up when watching a game on TV, but in the stadium the way he kept the Atlético defence on their toes was all too evident. It’s hard not to be impressed with Vinicius at the minute, but also Reguilon, the young left back who is meriting his continued selection ahead of the badly out of form Marcelo.
On the whole, it was an extremely enjoyable experience despite the result and the fact the game somewhat fizzled out in the final 20 minutes. Occasions like this one are something I’ve dreamed of seeing ever since I first came to Spain and the memory of that March 2014 Madrid Derby that I was so close to, but couldn’t afford to attend has always stuck with me.
I’m glad I got to experience it as an Atlético home game too. It might not be the Calderón, but the Atlético fans have done a great job in making this brand new stadium feel like home when so many other sides who have moved are stuck in grounds which feel soulless. Games like this and the Champions League tie against Juventus have proved that and I’m sure it’ll be the case for many more years to come.