Atletico Madrid's Copa Del Rey win over Real on Friday wasn't just about short-term glory, says Tim Stannard, but a chance to build for better things ahead...
Atletico Madrid haven't beaten their bitter rivals in almost 14 years. But Tim Stannard says that if anyone can help the Rojiblancos end that curse, it's Diego Simeone...
The fact that there are an awful lot of Clásicos these days - four so far, six for certain and potentially eight this season - has taken away the notion of the matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid as unique. That's not to say that each one since the arrival of José Mourinho - who stepped things up a little - hasn't been memorable. The One When Pepe Lost His Rag, The One With The Eye Poke and The One When Ronaldo Won The League being recent fun-filled examples.
The latest match-up between this feuding pair, a Copa del Rey semi-final first-leg affair, could be entitled The One When Messi And Ronaldo Did Naff All or even The One Where Everyone Got Along. A photograph published in Thursday's 'Marca' summed up the unusual amount of bonhomie on the pitch in the encounter with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gerard Piqué walking off together after a 1-1 draw with arms around each other's backs, rather than hands at throats. It's a far cry from the Mourinho-inspired hate-fests between Spain team-mates and perhaps an indication of the lessening influence of the Madrid manager in the dressing room.
The amicable nature of the clash which saw just three yellow cards apiece does not mean it wasn't competitive by any means. Indeed, for a tie played over two legs, the end-to-end, mayhem-stuffed nature of Wednesday's encounter resembled that of an all-or-nothing cup final. The 1-1 scoreline could have been an awful lot higher had it not been for some inspired defending from both participants and a couple of tie-finishing chances blown by Cesc Fabregas and Pedro with Barcelona 1-0 up at the time.
For this reason, it's Barcelona who have the biggest regrets of the two sides ahead of the second leg which won't take place for another month, another example of the general idiocy of those putting together match schedules in Spain. "We are left with a strange feeling," admitted Xavi Hernández after the game. "We had more chances than them but the result is fair," was the verdict of Piqué, whose defensive job on Cristiano Ronaldo and one particular tackle was one of the primary reasons the Portuguese wasn't able to add to his seven goals in the previous six Clásico encounters.
Leo Messi was kept just as quiet with the Argentinean being pushed towards the half-way line for much of the game by a make-shift Madrid back four without the injured Pepe and Marcelo or the suspended Sergio Ramos and Fabio Coentrao. Michael Essien was diligent in the right-back berth but the footballer who has made the front cover of Thursday's 'Marca' was the unbelievably good Raphael Varane.
The 19-year-old Frenchman was already building a reputation as a composed, elegant figure with an innate sense of when danger is brewing and the speed and ability to snuff it out, but the youngster's performance against Barcelona was imperious. A clearance off the line, and two outstanding sliding tackles on the goal-bound Leo Messi and Cesc Fabregas, were more reasons why Real Madrid are very much alive in this Copa del Rey tie.
"Varane could not have done better, he had the perfect game," said Madrid's assistant manager Aitor Karanka after a performance where the defender didn't commit a single foul and Leo Messi didn't get a shot on target. 'You could say that he got his PHD in being a great player,' wrote Alfredo Relaño in 'AS'. 'Varane confirmed that he's a central defender with a great future,' was the opinion of Josep Maria Casanovas in Barcelona-based 'Sport'.
Unfortunately, the good-natured spirit of the match was not shared by some of those watching in the stands with monkey noises made against Dani Alves throughout the encounter. From this correspondent's position in the stadium it appeared widespread too, rather than being acts committed by individuals.
"I didn't plan on leaving the field but it bothered me," said the Barça full-back on Thursday at a press conference. "It didn't just happen at the Bernabéu, but at every ground we go to. There is a fight against this, but it keeps on happening. Until measures are taken, nothing will be fixed."
The abuse against Dani Alves was an ugly, unacceptable downside to what had been another cracker of a Clásico where the defenders made the headlines rather than the usual goal-poaching pair. The hope is that once the highs of the match that dominate the headlines in Spain's press on Thursday have dropped a little, a more sober and considered look at what happened off the pitch will be the next on the agenda.
Tim Stannard - follow him on Twitter