So here we are again. For the fourth season running, Real Madrid are on the brink of putting Atletico Madrid out of the Champions League. The 3-0 victory for Zinedine Zidane’s men was a decisive argument in their favour, their most comprehensive result over a team which is their equal in so many ways. But European pedigree separates Real and Atletico. The contrast was stark on Tuesday night.
Under Diego Simeone, Atletico have conceded just 20 times in Champions League knockout rounds. Nearly half of those goals (nine) have been scored by the side whose sight must make Los Colchoneros sick. All three strikes on Tuesday were unleashed by Cristiano Ronaldo, just like when these sides met last November in the league.
The Portuguese star moved to 103 goals in Champions League football, more than Atletico have ever scored in the competition proper. But it is remarkable that Simeone’s side keep coming unstuck against Real in Europe. No other team has denied the red-and-white brigade the Champions League trophy in the past three seasons but its city neighbour. Unless Atletico find a miraculous way back, their tortured relationship with Real in Europe will continue.
Simeone held out hope for his side after the game, saying, “Football is wonderful because unexpected things can happen.” But sometimes it is not. The manner of Real’s victory was unexpected and yet, Simeone would struggle to find any positives from the result. It may seem meaningless now but in the lead up to the game, it was Atletico which arguably had more reasons to be optimistic.
Simeone’s men had conceded only four times in their last 13 matches across all competitions. They had rediscovered their defensive solidity after a frustrating first half of the campaign. Atletico were once again difficult to beat.
Contrastingly, Real had kept only one clean sheet in their previous 16 games and none in the Champions League at all. There was a lack of control in their recent displays. In the same period, Real conceded the first goal nine times. Zidane was worried that his side had the tendency to drop off after taking the lead too. The defeat against Barcelona was fresh in his mind; so was the suffering he had endured in the controversial victory over Bayern Munich in the previous round.
But then, in recent seasons, Real have rekindled their romance with the Champions League. A title-winning European campaign this time would be their third in four seasons. Real’s mastery of continental football can be seen in the disparity of their record against Atletico. Only once have Los Colchoneros lost to their arch-rivals in the league, the last eight times they have met. In fact, Simeone is yet to be defeated at the Santiago Bernabeu in a La Liga match. But his Atletico side have twice succumbed to a loss there in the Champions League.
However, none of Real’s conquests over their red-and-white neighbour in European football had the stamp of authority until Tuesday. Even when Atletico were knocked out of the competition in 2014-15, it was a late goal by Javier Hernandez which sealed the contest. This time, though, Zidane had Simeone’s number — just like the derby at the Vicente Calderon, which had also finished 3-0 in Real’s favour earlier this season.
In that match, Madrid started in a 4-1-4-1 formation with Isco playing just behind Ronaldo. The midfielder was placed a little deeper on Tuesday as the Portuguese star led the front line with Karim Benzema. It was a midfield diamond for Real with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos running the game as usual, backed up by Casemiro.
Isco, however, stood out as he did not misplace a single pass in the first half (42 out of 42). Roaming laterally, he was able to find pockets of space which caused confusion in the Atletico camp. Furthermore, with the visitors being forced to play their fourth-choice right back Lucas Hernandez, there was joy to be had on that flank. Marcelo pushed forward in his characteristic fashion, forcing Atletico back.
Although Real tapered off towards the end of the first period, the early goal ensured they could dictate control over the match. Atletico seemed to suffer from a lack of confidence as the usual incisiveness in their play was missing. Simeone finally gave up on Kevin Gameiro and Saul Niguez, bringing Fernando Torres and Nicolas Gaitan around the hour mark.
However, it was Zidane who was able to influence the match with the changes he made. Despite the loss of Dani Carvajal at the interval due to an injury — just like last year’s final in Milan — Real maintained their threat on the right wing thanks to the versatile Nacho. But a rash tackle by the already-booked Isco led to him being replaced by Marco Asensio. Karim Benzema was also substituted for Lucas Vazquez. Zidane later explained how those changes affected the game.
“We started with Isco today between the lines and he did it great, then later we can have Marco (Asensio) and Lucas (Vazquez) and have more depth and width in attack, as well as more defensive balance.”
The third goal was a neat summation of Real’s ability to counter with younger and fresher legs as Atletico chased the game. Few teams exploit space behind the opposition’s defence better than Zidane’s men.
However, the first two goals were a statement on something which we have come to appreciate — Ronaldo’s decisiveness. By the end of the night, the forward had only four shots. The first of them was a categorical mishit, rising nearly 25 yards over the goal, in the opening minutes. The next three, though, found the back of the net. By the end of the night, Ronaldo also had more goals to show in the knockout rounds (52) than the Champions League group stages.
Of course, we have been here before. The bigger the stage, the more likely it is that Ronaldo will find a way into the scoresheet. Eight of Real’s last nine goals in this season’s competition have been scored by their talisman. Zidane’s management of Ronaldo may have something to say for that. The Real manager has rested his star man whenever the opportunity has presented itself in the league. When asked whether that was the reason behind Ronaldo’s incredible displays in the big games, however, Zidane wondered if that was the case.
“I don't know if it is just that. Cristiano scores goals — he is unique for that. It is important (that he has rested) and he knows that he must rest sometimes too. It is also an accumulation of all the years. He knows that as he is intelligent.”
Indeed, it was Ronaldo’s intelligent movement and his eye for a goal which put daylight between his side and Atletico. In a week’s time, he could be at it again. And we will be left bemused once more. For Atletico’s European curse against Real looks here to stay.
Updated Date: May 03, 2017 10:17 AM