The Madrid Derby, or El Derbi Madrileño, is one which has long favoured Real Madrid in LaLiga, but the Copa del Rey brings with it a fresh challenge and one which has silverware riding on it. For Real Madrid, defeat could mean elimination from a second tournament in as two-and-a-half weeks, while for Atletico Madrid, it could go as far as ending their season.
Both teams will look to go all out to win this tie, but do so managing some delicate injuries which will mean that certain players will be unavailable and systems and tactics may have to change accordingly.
Here, we analyse three of the battles which could decide the eventual victors, and what Real Madrid need to do to ensure that they are putting themselves in the best position to win this game.
Vinícius Júnior vs Nahuel Molina and Rodrigo de Paul
In what will prove to be one of the biggest battles of the night, Vinícius Júnior will be looking to shine in spite of all the recent media attention. He’ll be doing so up against an Atletico Madrid side who will be deprived of the key man who has been used to keep Vinícius quiet in recent fixtures - Marcos Llorente.
The former Madridista went off injured against Valladolid on Saturday and has been ruled out for up to a month. He has been used almost exclusively to man-mark Vini in each of Atleti’s meetings with Real Madrid over the past two years, and so his absence is a real hammer blow to Diego Simeone’s hopes of taking anything from this game.
In his absence, it’s likely that the role of defending against Vinícius will pass over to two players: right-back Nahuel Molina and midfielder Rodrigo de Paul. De Paul is expected to come into the side after a period on the sidelines, only having started against Levante in the Copa del Rey since returning from the World Cup.
It’s not a new battle for Vini either, given that he has come up against the same pairing while playing for Brazil against Argentina. They clashed twice in 2021, in the Copa América in July and in World Cup qualifying in November, and in both games the winger had a muted impact, though he appeared only as a substitute in the final and did look more dangerous in the second meeting.
That is where Vini will be looking to learn from past experience to win this battle. In that game in San Juan, there was one battle won and one lost. When he received the ball in deeper positions and found himself coming up against De Paul, he struggled to win his battles, completing only two of five attempted dribbles and take-ons against the midfielder. In stark contrast, when receiving the ball in more advanced areas and looking to take on Molina before delivering a final pass, he completed three out of four.
The Argentinian defender is vulnerable in such situations, and despite being relatively quick himself, struggles to handle players with pace like Vinícius. However, to be able to unleash that effectively, Vini will need to pin Molina back and look to exploit one-on-ones with him in the final third. That will reduce his ball progression, where De Paul is more likely to step across and provide protection, but could mean that Vini can be more threatening in the final third.
The holding midfielder vs Antoine Griezmann
The biggest uncertainty in the Real Madrid line-up focuses upon what Carlo Ancelotti will do with the pivot role in the midfield. Eduardo Camavinga has begun to shine in the role, producing one of his best performances yet against Athletic Club. The presence of Aurelién Tchouaméni was ruled out by Carlo Ancelotti despite returning to training on Tuesday, and how sorely he will be missed will likely hinge upon quite how Camavinga, Kroos or A.N.Other perform up against Griezmann.
However, the Italian coach has opted for experience in such high-profile games in the past and that could either see Kroos get the nod, or see both players operate here. “Camavinga is as untouchable as Modrić and Kroos,” Ancelotti said at the weekend, but will his team selections live up to that?
It’s a big call for Ancelotti because he will know that whoever he selects will likely have the main responsibility for defending up against Antoine Griezmann. The Frenchman is in the form of his life and produced one of his best performances of the season against Valladolid at the weekend, dictating almost everything that Atlético produce in the final third. That’s been consistent throughout this season, with 9.2% of the Colchoneros’ passes into the final third coming from Griezmann’s boots.
Camavinga actually played 38 minutes in the pivot role against Real Madrid when the two teams met in the tail end of the LaLiga season in 2021/22. He actually produced a very strong display, winning 81% of his duels to record the highest duel success rate in any of his Real Madrid starts. In fact, three of his five recoveries came stealing the ball from Antoine Griezmann.
His energy will allow him to keep up a more chaotic and dynamic take on this role than offered by Tchouaméni or Casemiro before him, but also allow him to keep pace with Griezmann’s movement, The Atlético man will often drop deep out of possession, and so there is no need for a holding figure to sit deep while Real Madrid are on the ball, and Camavinga’s legs could provide the better match to track him, but then push forward when on the ball.
The alternative is Toni Kroos, who will have more of a role in playmaking from a deeper position. That selection, on paper, could play into Atleti’s hands. Griezmann is one of the few Atlético players who is capable, or willing, to deploy an intense press, and that will put greater pressure on Kroos and make that task more difficult. He has no problems to handle the game defensively, but it does seem that the demands placed on Kroos by tackling Griezmann, both in and out of possession, would tend to favour Camavinga’s selection.
Karim Benzema vs Mario Hermoso
This final battle is one which we may not see as much of as the previous two, but which could prove equally as decisive given the impact that Karim Benzema can make in the final third, and the potential for some disastrous defending from the inconsistent Mario Hermoso.
Hermoso’s record against Real Madrid since departing the club in 2017 has been terrible with one draw and six defeats from seven meetings, and he’s a player who hasn’t held back in speaking of his desire to beat Los Blancos in those meetings either.
Much of the battle for Real Madrid offensively is likely to come in the wide areas, with Vini taking on Molina and on the right flank where Atleti look vulnerable with Reinildo. However, that will simply be a battle to provide the ball into Benzema, who will likely be tracked closely by Stefan Savić but will be looking to drift across into the space or Mario Hermoso.
In the meeting between these two teams in LaLiga in September, Hermoso was sent off for two yellow card offences in 18 minutes, and his temperament will again be tested here. While Benzema isn’t one to push a player’s buttons in that sense, he will be trying to throw him off.
What will be pivotal in this battle will be Benzema’s movement, and that’s why his physical shape is so important. Mario Hermoso has the highest aerial duel success rate of any Atleti defender this season at 64.7%, which is significantly higher than Savić’s 56.4% or even makeshift central defender Reinildo’s 57.1%, but his positioning and awareness often lets him down. When Hermoso is in the right place, he can be hard to beat. But Benzema is one of the best in the game for finding a yard of space to break away, and he’ll be looking to dislocate Hermoso in that way.
The fact that it isn’t a battle which will be ongoing throughout the game is precisely why this battle is so crucial. While we may not see it emerge as frequently as Vini taking on Molina or Camavinga challenging Griezmann, Benzema will look to pull off and exploit spaces left by Hermoso to make that all-important difference when it comes to final deliveries into the box.