So much has been written about these two teams' meetings this season that it's almost an exercise in futility to nitpick at these clubs and how they've fared against each other on the pitch. Last season, Real Madrid had the edge as they went 3-1-1 against Atleti in all competitions. This season Atleti holds the edge as they've gone 4-2-0 in head-to-head meetings. Should we look back and learn from those games? Absolutely. Is it a surefire sign of things to come? Nope.
Atlético de Madrid
Starting at the back, Real Madrid will have to face a different keeper than the one who shut them out in the last meeting between the two sides. Out is Miguel Moya and in is Jan Oblak, the towering youngster who's been a rock for Atleti of late. Oblak was quietly one of the best young keepers in the world last season, prompting a big money switch to Atleti. Things didn't start well in his Madrid tenure but a series of assured performances allowed him to fly past Moya as Diego Simeone's number one keeper. Tall, strong in saving long distance shots and a whiz when it comes to stopping penalty kicks, Real Madrid will have to be at their best to get past him. One area of weakness is that sometimes his handling lets him down as he's been known to botch a few saves leading to goals.
In the back, expect Simeone to field a foursome of his trusted veterans in Juanfran, Miranda, Diego Godin and Guillehrme Siquiera. While they haven't been in the imperious form they were last season, particularly Miranda who seems to be rumored of exiting this summer, they're still a wily force to be reckoned with. Gabi and Miranda by themselves have six combined goals in the lead so it goes without saying that marking them on set pieces will be critical for Ancelotti's men. Juanfran has aged a bit and Cristiano Ronaldo will surely run at him, but the most important matchup here will be Gareth Bale against Siquiera, the weakest member of Atleti's back four.
The engine of Atleti is undoubtedly its midfield. Led by phenom Koke, it's an airtight, aggressive and assertive unit capable of beating you defensively and offensively. Koke paces the team with 15 assists in all competitions while Gabi leads them with five goals. However, Turan will be the one to stop when they have the ball as he's the team's best dribbler and ball carrier.
Must Reads on the Derby
Up top lie some question marks. Antoine Griezmann is sure to start, but his partner will be up in the air. Mario Mandzukic is the natural choice, and despite having trained with the team, comes into this game carrying an ankle problem (not to mention that he and Simeone have been feuding for a couple months now and the latter has had no problem benching him for it). If he starts then that presents Atleti with more tactical flexibility as Griezmann could play alongside or behind Mandzukic. However, should Fernando Torres, he of two quickfire goals against Real Madrid fame and little else, then Atleti will rely more on Griezmann as the focal point up top.
A special mention has to go to Griezmann though. Bought for a relatively paltry €30 million, he's been arguably the most critical signing of this season. In the past he primarily served as a left winger, but under Simeone's tutelage he's been a left winger, right winger, central attacking midfielder, second striker and targetman. He's developed his game so quickly that he can now run the offense on his own or be the poacher in the box that Simeone's system loves to target. Atleti has an "all hands on deck" approach but if anyone can swing this game in their favor it'll be Griezmann.
In goal, club captain Iker Casillas will try his best to stop Atleti's aerial barrage. While much has been made of who'll start between Bale and Isco and in what kind of shape the team will line up, it's Casillas who arguably holds the key for Madrid. It's no secret that set pieces aren't his strength, but he's shown this season that he still has excellent reflexes so staying disciplined on his line when Atleti lobs it up will be of utmost importance.
Though it's true to no one on defense has really covered themselves in glory versus Atleti this season, Ancelotti will be fielding his preferred, and most consistent, back line of Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Pepe and Daniel Carvajal. Pepe comes into this game fresh off of a hamstring injury, but by all accounts he seems roaring to go. Marcelo is the one to keep an eye on as he'll be vital in drawing defenders away from Ronaldo.
The midfield should be as ready and fresh as it has been in ages with Toni Kroos anchoring the back and Luka Modric and James Rodriguez pulling the strings on offense ahead of him. Modric's dribbling skills and ball retention will be something that Madrid missed the last time out as he's virtually immune to tight marking. The return of Rodriguez shouldn't be discredited either as he's already up to double digits in both goals and assists this season.
His ability to take on his defender through his dribbling or running wide in order to pinpoint cross the ball offers this team an added edge which was sorely missing in the 4-0 loss. The attack will consist of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale. On paper, this is the kind of matchup in which Benzema and Bale struggle with as they'll be faced with physical, aggressive pressers on the ball. Benzema will be critical as his swapping with Ronaldo could lure away a defender for the Portuguese man to exploit. Gareth Bale will likely be tasked with playing more of a midfield role than as an attacker, especially on defense, but he has to remain involved for the full 90 as Siquiera will not fear to run forward to join in the attack.
By the numbers
Real Madrid comes into this meeting scoring an average of 2.96 league goals and 2.6 Champions League goals while Atleti is registering 1.9 league goals and 1.75 Champions League goals.
Of these goals, Real Madrid has scored 12 from outside of the box in all competitions while Atleti only has five in such a manner to their name. Oddly enough, both clubs have 14 league clean sheets and five in the Champions League. An important part of the game will be set pieces where Real Madrid has 19 to their name while Atleti has a whopping 33. However, keeping Atleti away from those situations could work in Real Madrid's hands as they average 58.2 percent possession in the league (56.5 in the Champions League) while Atleti is sub-50 percent in both competitions. Real Madrid is 6-1-3 in its last 10 games while Atleti is 5-4-1. Atleti relies more on the long ball (14 percent of their passes) than Real Madrid (10 percent) so expect to see upfield punts aimed at Griezmann.
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Date & Time: Tuesday, April 14th. 20:45 local time (CET), 14:45 (EST)
TV schedule: FOX Sports 1, ESPN Deportes (United States), ITV 1 (United Kingdom), TVE1 (Spain), Ten HD (India), Others.
Realistically, it'll take the season's biggest and best performance from Real Madrid to come out of this one with a victory. We've seen some very good showings from this club, particularly in the first half of the season, but none of those games had the pressure of this one and, Barca aside, none of those opponents had the credentials to stand up to Madrid. It'll take a full 90 minutes of focus and drive to get some kind of positive result in a stadium which is more than capable of rattling Ancelotti's men.
However, if there was any time to be positive against Atleti it's now. The early season meetings were a challenge for Real Madrid due to new faces being integrated in key positions, now they seem to be on the same page and we've seen how coherent they are when they're all healthy. Ancelotti has a full roster of (mostly) healthy players at his disposal while Simeone's men come into this one carrying some knocks and with some dodgy form over the last few weeks. Of course, when these two meet all form can be thrown out the window, but at least there's a glimmer of hope.
Look for a tight, one goal difference game which should likely be decided on set pieces. Don't be surprised if Real Madrid goes for a fast goal or two and then sits back on defense to fight for the away goal advantage.