Los Blancos, meanwhile, will be trying to regain their equilibrium after last week's shock defeat to Betis. Forget about the title race and heated Madrid rivalry for a second (which, of course, are both highly significant), a loss by Jose Mourinho's team in this fixture, in this context, has the potential to send Real Madrid's season into a serious downward spiral.
The defeat to Betis brought the rumors and rumblings of internal discontent back to the surface and prompted some supporters in the Bernabeu to openly voice their displeasure with Mourinho during Tuesday's Copa del Rey match against Alcoyano. No matter how good this Atletico team is (and make no mistake they are very good)--the psychological impact of losing this derby could rupture the apparently very fragile bonds currently holding the entire 2012-13 Real Madrid enterprise together.
Atletico head into the derby having won 17 of their last 20 matches. Amazingly, they have done so while averaging only 48% possession in games over that span, according to Dermot Corrigan. That stat is further confirmed by WhoScored in their analysis of Atletico's last 2 league matches (both victories) against Sevilla and Granada, as the Rojiblancos ability to create a high number of goal scoring opportunities relative to their possession was rated one of their primary strengths as a unit.
Atletico's ability to create a lot with little is a frightening prospect for Real Madrid, particularly in the wake of Pepe Mel's comments after the Betis match where he admitted that he part of his tactical plan was to let Madrid possess the ball because they're "far less of a threat when they have to make a play." Atletico know with certainty that they can win matches where they see less of the ball than their opponents because they do so regularly. Conversely, this perception about Real Madrid's lack of creativity in possession must be addressed tactically and on the pitch with increased productivity from players like Angel Di Maria and Mesut Ozil. If Ozil is dropped, Mourinho's utilization of Luka Modric will be crucial. The Croatian's innate creativity, if encouraged, could prove decisive.
Diego Simeone's men play extremely disciplined, organized defense and will be bringing an impressive streak of 5 straight clean sheets into the Bernabeu. One of the key battles in this match will be in the midfield, as Atletico will likely look to press Xabi Alonso in attempt to isolate him and disrupt his ability to initiate counter attacks. If this occurs with any degree of success, Sami Khedira's role and performance will be of paramount importance to the outcome of the match. His ability to neutralize a player like Arda Turan will be necessary to prevent the Turkish international from drifting into open spaces to create opportunities for Radamel Falcao (can't believe I got this far into the article without mentioning him).
Another point of concern is that Atletico as a unit are very strong in the air and exceedingly dangerous off of set-pieces, another area of weakness with Real Madrid. Madrid must seek to limit the Atleti's set-piece opportunities and defend the ones they do concede with discipline and tenacity.
Atletico know to how attack down the flanks and their width, coupled with their defensive strength and overall cohesion, is another reason they are so dangerous. Real Madrid have seemed specifically vulnerable down the right side of the pitch in recent weeks. Hopefully that problem has been identified by the technical staff and players in the preparations for this match.
This is definitely the most important match that Los Blancos have played since May and the fact that it's a derby with decades of tradition makes the pressure all the more intense.
How do you feel about this challenge, Madridistas?