The Madrid derby is one of those matches where previews more or less go out the window. The sides know each other, the match will be intense, the fans will be out for blood and all the players will be out with a point to prove. It's too early to say that this match will decide the season, but given how Real Madrid has struggled in the mini-leagues over the last few seasons it could go a long way in establishing a marker for things to come.
For Real Madrid, the big storyline this week has been Cristiano Ronaldo's scoring output having become the club's scoring leader surpassing former captain Raul. However, there's been some talk of the club being generous and awarding him a goal that some feel should be attributed to Pepe. Either way, the talisman will likely be eager to get on the scoresheet and put all doubts to rest, not to mention quieting those who have been openly criticizing his accuracy in front of goal this season. The bigger question than Ronaldo's finishing is which Karim Benzema will show up: the one who's been on an early season tear or the one who regularly struggles mightily versus Atletico Madrid. These two will be glad to see the third member of their trio, Gareth Bale, return from his injury layoff to provide a dynamic threat in the final third which has been lacking versus Malaga and Malmo.
The rest of the Real Madrid lineup should be pretty easy to pick itself. Bale is back and seemingly ready to play, as is Sergio Ramos, two massive boosts for Rafa Benitez. Though Danilo, Pepe and James Rodriguez are all ruled out, this is still a Madrid side which has familiarity and the cohesion needed to get off the slide versus their inner-city rivals. There's some question over starting Mateo Kovacic instead of Isco due to his positional flexibility and what he offers on defense, but expect the latter to get the nod as the final third playmaker. It wouldn't be surprising to see either Kovacic or Lucas Vazquez come on in the second half should the game be in a gridlock as their combination of dribbling and pace could prove to be capable enough of beating the Atleti block.
The problem for Real Madrid this season is less the lineup, which is always teeming with world class players, but more with the finishing. In the league they're averaging nearly 23 shots per game, but only approximately nine of those are on target. Over eight of these are from outside of the box as well. However, despite these numbers Madrid IS getting into better locations than last season when it comes to shot quality as they're completing more passes into the opposition box. The finishing should normalize at some point, but the service into the box is a promising trend which could very well be why this side is one or two blips away from being the best in the league in the early season.
Atletico Madrid, on the other hand, comes in licking its wounds following a tough 2-1 loss to Benfica midweek in the Champions League in which Benfica pace on the counter posed serious problems for the generally-stout Madrid side. That loss was on the heels of a 1-0 loss to Villarreal in the league last weekend where a somewhat familiar problem of offensive impotency crept up.
Antoine Griezmann is doing his part though. The French superstar already has five goals and three assists to his name in eight matches and has taken the step into genuine superstardom but aside from him the scoring has been few and far in between. New signing Jackson Martinez has notched only one goal but it's his wastefulness in front of goal which has produced headlines so hard-working Fernando Torres seems likelier to get the starting nod alongside Griezmann. Torres isn't the deadly force he was years ago, but he puts in a strong shift and shows the enthusiasm that Simeone demands of all his players. The wildcard to watch is Angel Correa, a creative midfield buzzsaw with an eye for goal that could wreak havoc both as a starter or a substitute. His ability to take on his man with ease play across the front line could prove to be troublesome should Simeone have him exploit the space behind Madrid's fullbacks.
Defensively, despite giving up more shots per game and in better locations than last season, Atleti remains rock solid. Filipe Luis is in a bit of a rough stretch, but he'll join Juanfran, Jose Maria Gimenez and Diego Godin in the back to form a four that has helped concede 11 shots per game, seventh best in the league. The one area where Real Madrid could seek to gain a foothold is in the fact that Atletico Madrid is middle of the pack in getting beat by the dribble, their defenders are a cohesive unit when they've had time to set up in the low block but in the transitional phase and one-on-one they have shown cracks in their armor. With the likes of Ronaldo, Bale, Isco and Modric this could be a strategy that Benitez will look to exploit.
The big blow for Atleti this weekend will be the absence of Koke. Having rushed to try and return in time from a thigh strain but failed, the midfield prodigy will be forced to watch from the stance. A serious deficiency for Simeone as Koke is Atleti's main set piece taker and the all-around dynamo whose presence has been missed in the midfield. However, Gabi and Tiago can provide the thunder while Oliver Torres and Correa will bring the lightning to Simeone's midfield should be able to recover to an extent.
As far as predictions, this is just one of those matches that's too tough to call. Real Madrid comes in with more injuries, but with a better form. Atleti was the dominant of the two sides last season but is going through another early-season transitional phase and feeling the effects. It's tempting to pick Real Madrid in a low-scoring affair, but there's just nothing from either side to differentiate itself from the other as a clear favorite.