Despite a stunning 2014, there have been criticisms aplenty since the turn of the year coming the way of Real Madrid’s players. Selfish, meek and lazy are the sorts of terms used to describe Carlo Ancelotti’s men as of late, more so given the manner in which they crumbled in the La Liga title race during early 2015.
They’re debilitating traits often associated with Los Blancos’ clutch of supremely talented but often timid superstars and chinks in the armor city rivals Atletico Madrid have exploited with distinction in recent contests; they’ll be desperate to do so once again when the two sides square off in what should be an enticing Champions League quarter-final.
Despite being the reigning European champions, it’s a match Real are probably second favorites for, even with a red-hot Cristiano Ronaldo supported by the likes of Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez and Karim Benzema. That’s because Atletico boats a hex over their city rivals at the moment.
Having gone 14 years without a win over their more illustrious neighbors, Diego Simeone’s men now boast a remarkable record over Real. The two sides have met on six occasions this season ahead of the clash at the Vicente Calderon, with the Rojiblancos unbeaten in every game. Indeed, the most recent derby saw Atletico crush Los Blancos 4-0 with a stunning show.
On paper, Simeone’s men are the perfect team to shut down Real. They eradicate the chances of a counter-attack, they close off space ruthlessly and they are unrelentingly tenacious in their work-rate. In many respects they’re the antithesis of their rivals and you suspect the club’s boisterous wouldn’t want it any other way.
But while there is so much to admire about Atletico and the manner in which Simeone has conjured a team greater than the sum of its parts, this ongoing trend is a worrying one for Real and something that must be set right from their perspective.
For Ancelotti, another surrender at the Calderon could be the final nail in the coffin. Speculation has raged in the build-up to the game about the Italian’s future and whether he is likely to remain in situ at the Santiago Bernabeu next season. At the moment the general consensus is it looks rather unlikely.
There is one thing that could potentially save him, though: becoming the first team to savor back-to-back European Cup wins in the competition’s current format. After landing La Decima last season, guiding Real to their 11th win in this grand tournament could potentially reprieve Ancelotti of the axe. Let’s not forget, after Barcelona conceded late to Sevilla in their previous encounter, the capital club are still in the La Liga title race too.
It’s why this match with Atletico is so significant for Real’s season. Despite the upturn in form on the domestic front, another abject display at the home of their fierce rivals will plunge this club in crisis once again, prompting questions about the personnel in the squad and most pressingly, the manager.
On the contrary, a win could do wonders for the European champions. Not only would they conquer an increasingly imposing mental hurdle, but it will prove this team still has the requisite hunger that was so prevalent in their triumph a year ago and they possess the fight to mix it in hostile venues like the Calderon. It would also serve as real motivation for Real in the La Liga title race as they eradicate the two-point gap to Barcelona at the top of the table.
The last time Los Blancos got the better of their local rivals was in that Champions League final last season, when Sergio Ramos arrived right on cue to save the day. Since then, while Atletico have failed to challenge with quite the same might for the La Liga title, when it comes to facing Real, there’s been a clear drive and an unerring sense of redemption fueling their rumbustious displays.
So Ancelotti, Ronaldo, Bale and co. should expect a furious barrage in the first-leg of what will be an engrossing pair of matches, from those donning the iconic red and white stripes both on the pitch and in the stands.
After all, despite the hegemony held in La Liga, the Super Cup and the Copa del Rey over Los Blancos this season, there would be no revenge quite as sweet as turning over the 10-time European champions in the competition in which they broke Atletico hearts last season.
Real must ready themselves for an enormous test, but it’s these kinds of nights that can be season-defining. A strong performance here before a backdrop of red, white and blue hostility would prime Ancelotti’s men for a trophy laden end to the campaign and from their point of view, finally put their noisy neighbors back in their place.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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