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Atletico vs. El Real: How the Madrid derby’s become more than a foregone conclusion

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Sunday’s Derbi Madrileno will pit Real Madrid against their formidable city rivals, Atletico Madrid, the latest edition of a once one-sided rivalry that has taken on new life over the last two years. Madrid come into the match in far better form, having won six of their last seven in all competitions and only allowing one goal this entire campaign. Atletico, on the other hand, have struggled as of late, a disappointing 1-0 loss away to Villarreal last week compounded by a 2-1 loss to Benfica in the Champions League.

But differences in form can be jettisoned whenever el derbi comes around — at least, in recent history – even if there was a time not too long ago when the Madrid derby was a mere afterthought. Real Madrid spent almost a decade and a half running roughshod over their city rivals.

SEE MORE: Top 5 must-see games on TV this weekend.

After a 2-1 victory against Real Madrid in 1999, where the likes of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Jose Mari got on the scoresheet, Atletico would go 14 barren years without defeating their wealthier city rivals -26 games in total, with Madrid netting 53 goals to Atletico’s 18 over that span. Sometimes, it only took Madrid 14 seconds to get started …

But it’s been a different story the past couple of years. From 2013 on, Atletico have turned the tables, and the Madrid derby has regained the luster of old.

Last season, Madrid were relatively hopeless every time they came up against Atletico. Atletico won four of the eight matches the teams played, with three others matches ending in draws. Real Madrid’s solitary win came at the most important time, a 1-0 victory in the Champions League quarterfinals courtesy of a late Chicharito goal, but on the whole Atletico, had Madrid’s number last season.

The crowing moment of that run was their 4-0 demolition job at the Vicente Calderon at the turn of the year. With Madrid reeling after a few key injuries, Atletico were out for blood, resulting in a drubbing heard around Madrid after Simeone’s men embarrassed Los Merengues.

But in the bigger picture, Atletico’s recent performances against Madrid look like a statistical anomaly; their newfound confidence against their bigger and bolder city rivals can be attributed to Diego Simeone’s impact on the club but more specifically stems from the magnitude of an era-defining performance a few couple seasons ago.

The 2012-2013 Copa Del Rey final, during Jose Mourinho’s last season at Madrid, was a match that would have repercussions far beyond the 120 minutes of football. After dropping out of the league title race early and bowing out of the Champions League to Borussia Dortmund a few weeks prior, Real Madrid’s Copa Del Rey final at home seemed like the perfect remedy for what was ultimately a disappointing season. A win against Atletico would ease the pressure on Mourinho, who already had a foot out the door, but Madrid were confident coming into a derby they’d won 10 times in a row.

The game itself was filled with all the theatrics, drama and fighting we’ve come to expect from Spanish derby matches. There were 14 yellow cards in total and two expulsions: Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourniho. Atletico would outlast their rivals, coming from behind to win 2-1 in extra time, with goals from Diego Costa and Joao Miranda canceling out an early 14th minute header from Ronaldo. It was also a coming out party for on loan Chelsea keeper Thibaut Courtois, who made a series of impressive stops down the stretch.

Atletico fans were even heard chanting “Mourinho stay” in jest as the game inched closer to completion, and the scenes after the final whistle summed up just how massive a victory it was.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpsgEq_oZVE

In many ways, that win provided the impetus for Atletico to win La Liga the following season. Finally, the bastard stepclub of Madrid would have the confidence and temperament to put together a full campaign.

This weekend’s clash, however ,will be a different. Gone is Carlo Ancelotti, who Simeone largely dominated tactically whenever the two teams met over the past couple of seasons. Rafa Benitez has enjoyed a good start to Madrid and he’s already been far more adaptable in the early season than his predecessor.

It became increasingly easy for Simeone to neutralize and stagnate the Madrid midfield under Ancelotti, who remained tethered to his 4-3-3 formation. Most of the recent encounters between the two sides played out the same way; Madrid piling forward again and again but pushed out to the wings where they would be forced to resort to crosses which the likes of Miranda and Diego Godin handled easily.

This Madrid outfit, however, when fully fit, are far more unpredictable. Though he’s been injured as of late, Gareth Bale’s inclusion in the middle of the park has opened up mountains of space for everyone in attack. Bale is far from a traditional no. 10, and with him in the lineup, Madrid carry and air of unpredictability.

James Rodriguez should be back as well (though he’s likely to start on the bench). The Colombian will provide his creativity and goal scoring punch when needed.

Atletico on the other hand have lost a bit of the defensive ability that’s defined them in recent years. Miranda is gone, off to Internazionale in the summer, and replaced by the highly-rated Uruguayan Jose Gimenez. Atletico are, however, more of a threat to score from open play, though they’ve struggled to do so in recent games as their new signings continue to adjust.

Regardless, this one should be live up to the rivalry’s new standards. For Madrid it will be their first real test of the La Liga campaign. Can Keylor Navas continue his amazing start to the season? Or will the likes of Antoine Grizemann and Fernando Torres pick apart a Madrid defense that’s far shakier than statistics may suggest. Atletico need to get back on track and fast. Three early losses in a row could set the tone of the rest of the season – Cholo will want to avoid that at all cost.

Oh … and Cristiano Ronaldo is one goal short of being the undisputed top scorer in Real Madrid history. As if this Madrid’s revitalized derby needed any more drama.

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