“There is no favourite for the game tomorrow,” Zidane said at this morning’s training session at Valdebebas. “We'll see what happens.”
So it begins -- the month from hell. The first of many ‘finals’ — do or die clashes that commence on Saturday against Atletico, and (perhaps) end with Sergio Ramos lifting a trophy in Cardiff on June 3rd.
The kick-starter quote to this piece was Zidane’s response to reporters at this morning’s presser who sought answers — or hints — about line-up selections in the upcoming month. It was a lukewarm attempt to pick the brain of a man conservative with his answers, fully knowing that it would be tough to go with an ‘Once de Gala’ in every one of the four heavy-weight melees that reside this month — and with players like Kovacic and Isco playing so well in big games this season, the question, ultimately, is fair: “Why not?”.
Then again, there is a case to be made for the opposite — this time of year, the water-treading theoretically comes to an end, and your best players get paid millions to pull out the buoys and take you to shore.
Both Atletico and Real Madrid are looking ahead to other games this month (more on this in the interview below). Zidane rolled out a rotation-heavy squad against Leganes on Wednesday; while Atletico opted not to rest any key players against Real Sociedad on Tuesday. But, despite all of this, Saturday’s Derby will likely be a much tighter affair than the one which played out at the Calderon earlier this season -- a three-goal drubbing on the back of monster performances from nearly every player on the team sheet.
For one, Atletico is in great form right now.
There are other factors: Real Madrid were missing Casemiro and Kroos that November night in the Calderon, forcing Zidane to make changes that may have put them in a better position to win. Without a pure anchor in the team, Real Madrid packed the midfield with two-way workhorses. Kovacic and Modric worked tremendously well just behind a spear-heading Isco, and Bale and Lucas Vazquez provided stability on the wings (I don’t want to rehash it again, but as a refresher, read my immediate reaction to that match). With squad health relatively good right now, changes like that will be tough to foresee, and there is always a legitimate question that is asked when everyone is healthy — is Zidane’s 4-3-3 really the best use of this squad? It hasn’t impressed as much as it should, and when Zidane has found a formula that combines some of the BBC, with some of the fireballs off the bench (like in the previous Derby), Real Madrid has looked its best.
But hey, let’s give Zidane the benefit of the doubt. His ‘preferred XI’ has barely played together this season, and the Frenchman’s strength has always been to propel the team’s performance on the biggest stages.
Speaking of big stages, we reached out to ‘Into the Calderon’s’ Jeremy Beren (@JBBeren) to help us set this one. As further reading, please read the Q&A I did with him yesterday over at the enemy’s base.
Kiyan: Atleti's season thus far, chronologically: Greizmann hopes to avoid relegation, then Atleti become other-worldly good and look like the only big team -- other than Bayern Munich -- to actually be playing great football in Europe. But then the team falls off a cliff, digs itself a massive hole in La Liga, only to overturn it all with some great play as of late while climbing themselves back up to third place.
So, um, which version of Atletico is the real one?
Jeremy: This has been such a strange season, man. Atlético were unstoppable until the slip-up at Sevilla, and that kinda preceded a tailspin that lasted through January.
I don't think Simeone ever fully latched on the more expansive style of play, as breathtaking as it was in September and October. He wasn't comfortable with how open it left Atleti at the back; players like Juanfran and Stefan Savić were exposed in defense, and the attempts to revert to 4-4-2 and Cholismo led to further dips in form from Antoine Griezmann and Koke.
But starting with the Copa del Rey semifinal tie against Barcelona, Atlético have been able to balance the compactness and pressing of the early Cholo years with the free roles that the team's creative forces require. Griezmann roams all over the pitch; Yannick Carrasco blazes up and down the left side and can be seen playing off both fullbacks at times; Koke stays on a wing when Atleti are in defense but drifts centrally immediately after the ball is won.
It's taken many months and some pretty bad results, but it looks like what we're seeing now is the Atlético we know and love (or hate) with more than a tinge of flair and creative freedom.
Kiyan: Your schedule is cute. Not on Real Madrid level's of incoming purgatory, but still tough, I guess. You didn't rest key players against Sociedad, and now you have the Derbi, plus a big game against a feisty Leicester coming up. Will Simeone go with his best XI in both the upcoming matches?
Jeremy: Yeah, he will. While Simeone chose not to rotate against Real Sociedad - an important match that was needed to solidify third place - he was able to take off Antoine Griezmann (something he rarely does) and Fernando Torres in preparation for El Derbi. He'll get an excellent chance to rotate after the first leg against Leicester, as Osasuna come to town next Saturday before Atlético jet off to England.
Kiyan: Deep down, in the trenches of your soul, how does it make you feel inside when you hear the rumour of Florentino breaking all handshakes to pay Theo's buyout clause?
Jeremy: After the reported attempts to pry Sergio Agüero, Radamel Falcao, Diego Forlan and José Giménez, it's interesting that a player who isn't even at the club right now is the one finally mooted to make the move to the Bernabéu, isn't it?
Look, handshake agreements are nice and cute and honorable in theory, but football has moved well beyond that era. The power lies with the players. For example, let's say Thibaut Courtois someday wants to move to Real Madrid, there won't be a whole lot stopping him. We would hope that playing for a club as special as Atlético would weigh on his conscience and step in before he makes a career-altering decision/terrible mistake. Griezmann's been linked with this move too, if we want to use a current colchonero.
The same applies to, say, Nacho. He's been at Real Madrid for more than 15 years, making his way from the academy on up. If he wanted to leave all that behind and move to Atlético, only his conscience and his memories of trophies would feasibly stop him.
In short: I think this is a ploy by Theo and his agent to get certain assurances and a pay raise out of Atlético. But it's also a referendum of sorts on how gentlemen's agreements have become pretty meaningless.
Kiyan: Atleti's defense has looked great again this season, after some slips earlier on. After conceding goals in five straight matches, you've been able to keep a clean sheet in five of your last six, and have managed to tie Villarreal for La Liga's best defense. What's been the key factor in patching things up defensively?
Jeremy: If you had told me in December that Atlético would at some point this season rally level with Villarreal as the league's best defense, I would have spammed you over and over with the following gif:
Well, Jan Oblak returned from a dislocated shoulder in February, and it's usually good for a struggling defense to recover one of the best goalkeepers on the continent. He's been mostly excellent since his return, and Diego Godín has gotten better too; he's his usual, commanding self. The shift back to 4-4-2 looks to have been the right decision; Atlético are more structured in those two banks of four, more eager to give up possession and more confident on the counterattack.
Kiyan: Gabi has aged gracefully. How important has he been for Atletico this season?
Jeremy: I wrote all about that very topic here! Basically: Gabi remains a critical cog in the Atleti midfield at 33 years old, and this is one of his finest seasons yet. Gabi is a different player now from the one that helped win LaLiga in 2014; he's more subtle, more disciplined, more tactically aware. Even when Atleti tried and struggled with a more open, expansive style earlier this season, Gabi remained consistent - we saw this in the last Madrid Derby in particular, when Madrid blew the game open after his departure. He's awesome.
Kiyan: How much longer will Simeone stay at Atletico?
Jeremy: One more season. Simeone's contract was reduced to 2018 from 2020 early this season, a crystal-clear indication that he knows the end of a cycle is near. He has always maintained that he wants to lead the team out at A Stadium Called Wanda, and the contract reduction will allow him to do just that. We're kinda bummed about it, but all good things...
Kiyan: Give us your prediction, foe.
Jeremy: What's the point if I don't pick Atleti to win? 2-1 with goals from Griezmann and Koke.