Ancelotti's team sheet reveals no major surprises, other than confirming the continuing absence of Marcelo. There was some muted hope during the week that the Brazilian left-back may have been available. The absence of Marcelo could likely open the door for Fabio Coentrao to start against Atletico, a squad against whom he enjoyed one of his best matches as a Real Madrid player last season. But some reports are indicating that Ancelotti may start Dani Carvajal on the right and Alvaro Arbeloa on the left. Whatever the backline combination ultimately is they will need to perform at a higher level than they have over the past month where breakdowns and miscommunications have become far too commonplace. Atletico favor deadly through balls and will look to exploit set-piece opportunities, so superlative communication amongst the defense will be paramount to securing a result.
In American football there is a well-worn cliche that teams begin to assume the characteristics and personality of their head coach. Sometimes you can glimpse situations where this may hold true and honestly Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid are one in the context of world football. In the sprit of their coach, Atletico play with a collective level of edginess, grit and physicality that combined with their considerable quality and cohesion makes them a supremely difficult opponent.
Fascinatingly, Ancelotti seemed to refer to just these characteristics when speaking of Atletico yesterday, saying:
"Atletico play aggressively, they are all together, that is a good quality of theirs. They are a strong team and use the weapons they have. As a team they have the characteristics of Simeone as a player. He was tactically perfect, very focused, with a lot of character. That is Simeone, that is Atletico Madrid."
Ancelotti went on to say that Real Madrid have more quality than Atletico, which is true, but Atletico's level of cohesion goes a long way towards negating advantages of quality--as anyone who watched their recent Supercopa clash against Barcelona can attest.
Tellingly, Ancelotti seemed to refer to Madrid's cohesion deficit as well when commenting on Madrid's gradual transition under his guidance, replying that:
"It is normal when you try to change something that you need time. It is also true that we have not played good matches but we've got good results. It is normal to need time to improve. These are small details. We are on the right track with improving the game play. The players have a clear idea of the how we should be playing, some need to improve on that, but we are doing as expected. The idea is clear and therefore it needs a little time on the field for the players to choose the right play, so it sometimes seems a little slow"
This idea of needing "time to improve" is perfectly reasonable and fine in theory--but the currently reality of La Liga dictates that the time needed to improve, to adapt to Ancelotti's system, could prove costly if it comes at the expense of the results needed to stay in the title race. Also, what is Real Madrid's identity? They are certainly not yet the possession team that Ancelotti envisions nor are they the counterattacking side of the Mourinho era, although fragments of that style remain.
Ancelotti also spoke of tactics, labeling Madrid's formation a 4-4-2 and saying that:
"We played seven official matches and have played a 4-4-2 in each. This is the system. From time to time we have played well using it and others not, but the reason is not because the system has changed, it has always been the same. It is always a match between players. The team can play well if it has a clear idea of the match strategy."
For his part, Simeone agreed with Ancelotti's assessment of Real Madrid's quality advantage, telling the press that "Real Madrid are better than us." A comment that can be read as either blunt honesty or basic psychology to motivate his team. Likely it's a little of both.
Gareth Bale is expected to feature. Whether he starts or comes in off the bench is anyone's guess. The interesting part will be to see where he is deployed. The beIN television pundits were under the impression that Bale was going to play centrally in-behind Karim Benzema against Getafe before his injury forced him out. Such a tactical move would be fascinating to say the least.
A lot to think about. This is one we've been waiting for.