A much anticipated rivalry has started to lose its charm. Neutrals will tell you they’re over the idea of Madrid’s best two teams squaring off against each other in the Champions League — a subjective view that’s hard to argue with. Real Madrid has dominated Atletico in the Champions League since 2014. This season, in all competitions, Real Madrid have outscored Atleti 7-1 over three games; and in the Champions League, have yet to lose against them in five high-stake clashes. Things have started to normalize a bit in this matchup, resembling the more traditional domination that Real Madrid has shown historically over their cross-town rivals -- winning 79% of the derbies ever played.
That’s the most optimistic outlook, to be sure. ‘Reality’ would like a word, though, or at least wrestle the idea that Real Madrid are already in the final. This version of Atletico Madrid is much better than it’s historical editions, and still has game-changing players and a tactical mastermind on their sidelines. Koke and Saul threw up duds in the first leg, and it’s hard to see them — and Atletico as a whole — churning in a defanged performance again. All those alarm bells, coupled with the fact that this will be the last Champions League match ever at the Calderon, means that Real Madrid will be in for one hell of a ride on Wednesday.
Simeone will need to have his guns blazing early if he is to overturn the three-goal deficit. He’ll also need to ensure Real Madrid don’t score an away goal which would surely end the tie immediately. Simeone is a mastermind, so if there’s one coach who can figure out a blueprint to do this, it’s him. I wrote more about his options here. Zidane, on the flipside, might have his mortars smouldering too. It’s nothing new to report, but the Frenchman has opted for a ‘go for the kill’ approach in these knockout games in the past. This approach can break an opponent’s back if executed properly. It can also not (El Clasico).
We reached out to Jeremy Beren (@JBBeren) of Into The Calderon to get the perspective of our enemy heading into Wednesday’s match. To read the first leg Q&A with Robbie Dunne, click here. The three of us will also be recording a ‘Churros y Tácticas’ podcast tonight, so if you have any questions for us, just send them here.
Note: The Theo Hernandez news came in after we did this Q&A. But I’m sure we’ll talk about it on tonight’s Churros y Tácticas podcast.
Kiyan: Robbie wasn't very confident before the first leg. And while I thought Real Madrid had enough in the tank to outscore Atletico over two legs, I didn't except them to blow them out of the water completely. What was your reaction to the first leg, and how surprised were you?
Jeremy: I watched the first leg in a pub in midtown Phoenix and it was very annoying. I sat near a gaggle of Cristiano Ronaldo fans — based on conversations I heard, I don't think they cared very much about Real Madrid or the city rivalry — which contributed further to my annoyance/irritation. I make great life choices.
Overall, I wasn't so surprised that Atlético lost on the night considering how the past three European derbies went and how poor they have played against top teams this season. What did surprise me was how gutless the capitulation was to Cristiano and Co. Atleti never looked much like threatening, let alone scoring, despite Diego Simeone's relatively attacking setup and tactics. I was stunned at how inferior Atleti looked compared to Real Madrid, and in a stadium where the visitors have won or drawn every year since 2013. I didn't think the 3-0 scoreline was flattering; Simeone's men were actually that bad.
Kiyan: This is seemingly out of reach, but this is football, everything is possible, and, blah blah blah. Real Madrid has scored at least one goal in every single game this season. It's going to be tough. How can Atletico pull this one out and make the final?
Jeremy: In short: they can't. BUT, as this is a hypothetical situation, I will do my best to provide a hypothetical road map to a remontada.
Atlético must score first, inside 10 minutes, and should probably add a second in relatively quick succession. That will crank up the pressure on Real Madrid. Atleti must feed off an electric Vicente Calderón crowd which, despite the heavy deficit, will still be loud in the stadium's penultimate match. If the fans, and an organized Atleti, can press up on vulnerable players (hi, Casemiro!), counter rapidly and destabilize Madrid, they could get to this to extra time/the penalty shootout lottery -- Los Colchoneros have kept 18 clean sheets in 22 Champions League games at the Calderón since 2013.
Also, I could wake up on Wednesday and be 6'10''. Almost as probable.
Kiyan: Did you see any alarm bells from the 1-1 derbi in April that you saw triggered full force in the first leg?
Jeremy: Honestly, not really, which made what happened Tuesday all the more frightening. There were a few defensive breakdowns in the first half of the April 8 derbi, and Juanfran got juked by Pepe before his goal, but Atlético played pretty well that day - especially in the second half when Simeone aligned his team in a 4-3-3 and his players attacked with actual purpose.
Atleti's performances in the league derbies have proven very, very different from the Champions League derbies, which I think lends credence to the theory of a mental block and failure to find a killer instinct in that competition.
Kiyan: Before the draw was made, where did you rank Real Madrid in the list of opponents you wanted to face?
Jeremy: This semifinal draw was weird. Unlike last year, when everyone gazed longingly at Manchester City, each opponent was a difficult matchup for Atlético. Real Madrid had the psychological edge of the past three years, the spectre of multiple away goals loomed large with youthful Monaco's explosive attack and Juventus are essentially Atleti's Italian cousins. I wanted to face Monaco and Juve before facing Madrid again. That said, another matchup with Madrid was inevitable, and I expected it in the quarterfinals. So, hooray?
Kiyan: Let's talk aftermath. Do you agree with the notion Atletico have regressed this year? Are the issues exaggerated? What do you need next season to continue building in a positive trajectory?
Jeremy: Regardless of what happens Wednesday, there needs to be a frank discussion of where Atlético are headed and whether or not this should mark the end of the Simeone Era. I think this team has suffered more from a lack of progression rather than outright regression, but the stagnation in development of players like Koke, Stefan Savić and Ángel Correa has been alarming. One even could argue that Antoine Griezmann and Diego Godín have hit speed bumps, too, although they both have suffered from playing next to traffic cones in place of elite talents.
I don't think it's a stretch to say that Atlético are rapidly approaching the ceiling of the Simeone Era. The same thing happened to Pep Guardiola's brilliant Barcelona and Jürgen Klopp's scintillating Borussia Dortmund: sometimes, it's better for everyone if a change is made. This season has been a grind for Cholo and his team, and although it is set to end in another third-place LaLiga finish, a Copa del Rey semifinal and a Champions League semifinal, it will mark a third straight season without major silverware.
And that segues into what is needed to maintain Atlético's positive trajectory: An infusion of top talent. We're gonna talk about this more at Into the Calderón in the coming days/weeks, but basically: For too long, Atleti have tried to cut corners in bringing in the quality needed to match Simeone's European ambitions. Assuming that the transfer ban is lifted, there is no reason why Atleti can't spend ~€150 million this summer. The Wanda Metropolitano (A Stadium Called Wanda around these parts) opens this fall, and it must be opened with a bang. A world-class #9 has to sign; I will be beside myself if Fernando Torres is starting again for this team in 2017-18. The club must also acquire an elite playmaker and depth in an aging midfield.
Say, while I'm in the neighborhood, I hear Álvaro Morata isn't too thrilled about his playing time. And he used to play in Atlético's academy. I'm just saying.
Kiyan: Call it.
Jeremy: 2-1 Atlético win, 2-4 on aggregate. Fino alla fine.