10:14 PM GMT
Graham HunterSpain writer
- Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team.
By the time Sergio Ramos‘ penalty slunk inside Jan Oblak‘s right-hand post to win Real Madrid the Spanish Supercopa over Atletico Madrid in Jeddah, the two sets of exhausted players plus their emotionally drained managers were two weeks and six days away from the next Madrid derbi. It’s a short enough time for the scars that Sunday’s final inflicted to still be fresh, for vendettas to have simmered rather than cooled, but not long enough for Atleti to cure what has become a serious ailment.
Having become a boisterous, muscular, daring, “Yes, we can beat Madrid!” outfit, they now too regularly look like a group infected with “We’d better not lose-itis,” which can become a very bad case of “What’s going to go wrong this time-itis.”
Diego Simeone remains, in football terms, Atleti’s saviour.
Before him, Los Rojiblancos simply could not defeat Madrid. They lost heroically, they lost pathetically, they lost comically, they even drew a couple, but beating good, average or poor Real Madrid sides in a city derby was utterly beyond them for 14 years. Simeone swooped in with all the saturnine mischief and daring of Captain Jack Sparrow, thumbed his nose at the establishment and made off with vast treasures: La Liga, the Copa del Rey, a pair of Europa Leagues, a Spanish Supercopa, but most importantly, he continuously skewered Los Blancos — home or away.
Consistently qualifying for the Champions League under this intense Argentinian, and repeatedly performing robustly once in it, has earned Atleti’s coffers many hundreds of millions of euros without which their move to the Wanda Metropolitano and their ability to compete in the transfer market would have been significantly more traumatic exercises. When Simeone walks into a meeting with the men who employ him, it’d be tough to say whether they see euro and dollar signs flashing in front of their eyes, trophies being lifted, jaunty testosterone-fueled self-confidence — or, just maybe, an asset in slight decline.
Sunday’s defeat wasn’t even close to catastrophic; a match decided by penalties in which Dani Carvajal’s mistake had left Alvaro Morata rampaging through on goal to, in theory, score a 115th minute winner. Federico Valverde’s red-card-producing, goal-saving foul ripped that part of the dream away, but the point stands. Atleti might have scored with six or seven minutes left and defended for a 1-0 trophy win. They might have — but they didn’t.
Another pattern, albeit not as devastating as the 1999-2013 absence of a derby victory, has taken grip of Atletico. They remain competitive but that brutal, eternally sought-after hardness, that “win in any circumstances,” “win whatever it takes” attitude, the very essence of Simeone at his best as a player and as a coach, is dissipating.
How much separates them from Real Madrid since the rise of Simeone and his No. 2 Mono Burgos at Atleti? Not very much. A thin sliver.
Sunday was the fifth one-off Madrid derbi final in the past six and a half years, and every single one of them has gone to extra time. The 2013 Copa del Rey final, the 2014 Champions League final, the 2016 Champions League final, the 2018 European Supercup and this 2020 Spanish Supercopa final. Madrid have won three, Atleti two. Two of Madrid’s wins came via penalties; you could argue that, when it comes right down to it, the trophy record is nip and tuck so don’t draw any firm conclusions.
But start to build a bigger picture and there’s something for everyone at Atleti to be concerned about.
Since Simeone’s side trounced Madrid 4-0 on that infamous night of Cristiano Ronaldo’s birthday bash in February 2015, and sealed Carlo Ancelotti’s fate — now five managerial changes at the Bernabeu ago — there have been nine La Liga derbies between the two clubs. Remarkably, that debacle for Los Blancos was the last home victory for either team in their league series. During that five year spell, Atleti have won once at the Bernabeu and Real Madrid have punched Atleti’s clock (scoring three each time) twice — once at the old Calderon, once at the Metropolitano. Every other result in that La Liga series has been 1-1 or 0-0.
Those were the scores in the Champions League quarterfinal, just two months after Madrid’s 4-0 humiliation, too. Again, the barest minimum between these two wonderful enemies, but hostilities settled by a goal with two minutes of the 180 remaining. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez scored it, and Madrid went through.
A couple of years later, when Madrid had a 3-0 advantage in the Champions League semifinal only for Atleti to dramatically claw it back to 3-2 with 75 minutes to play, in theory with the huge advantage of momentum, it was Isco who got the crucial next goal and Zinedine Zidane’s team not only went through but won the competition. Again.
The margins continue to be infinitely thin, yet it’s Madrid, not Atleti, who constantly seem to have the right stuff or the luck or the indulgent nod of the refereeing officials — or whatever. That brutal moment on Sunday, when Valverde chops down Morata and gets himself sent off but probably makes the choice that paves the way for Madrid’s ultimate victory, kind of sums up the relationship between the two clubs.
Yes Atleti muscled their way, excellently, to victory in extra time in the 2018 European Supercup thanks to goals from Saul and Koke. But the narrative that dogs Atleti now runs like this: “We nearly had it won in 2014,” “Ramos was offside for his goal in 2015, he should have been sent off later on in the match … if only Juanfran’s penalty hadn’t hit the post,” “Antoine Griezmann’s penalty miss made all the difference,” “Valverde’s cynical foul snatched victory away from us,” “If only Saul hadn’t hit the post,” “If only Oblak was as good at penalty shootouts as he is in matches,” and so on.
The matches, the statistics, the number of draws and the relative quality of the two squads, plus Madrid’s pretty regular managerial travails, prove a point: Objectively, there’s very little between Atleti and Madrid, and that’s been true for almost every month of the nine years during which we’ve all had the great privilege of marveling at Simeone’s work in charge of Los Colchoneros. Yet since 2015, Atleti have too regularly found ways not to do the business against Madrid; it’s Zidane’s team that has repeatedly won the Champions League, whether against Atleti or not, it’s Zidane’s team that has been unique in breaking Barcelona’s La Liga stranglehold, it’s Zidane’s team that has had the truly big results in derbies.
Is it pure luck? I really don’t think so. Is it about mentality? It paints that way; there’s a strong whiff of “Most important is not to lose, after which we’ll think about winning.” Does Simeone (and Burgos) need a refreshing break of a few seasons away from Atleti, working his unarguable magic at Inter or Lazio? Do Madrid routinely buy players with stronger, more ruthless wining mentality — the benefits of which play out not every single time but over the pattern of repeated jousts with a given rival? Perhaps so.
Barcelona are in a tailspin. Madrid look like champions in the making, but they have a dearth of goal scoring up front that, were Karim Benzema to be injured, could yet clip their wings. There’s loads left in this title race. The top two are very, very far from invulnerable, and Atleti are just five points behind the joint leaders with that Madrid derbi coming up on Feb 1.
This would be a good time to take this latest “We were robbed!” lament that accompanied them all the way back from Jeddah and use it as a spur to show that the Simeone effect is not decaying, that competitive rust is not setting in when their oldest, most disliked rivals are in front of them.
Over to you, Atleti.