On Saturday evening, Atlético Madrid’s magnificent new Wanda Metropolitano stadium will host city rivals Real Madrid for the first time.
Although the ‘Derbi Madrileño’ is of secondary importance to the Clásico in the eyes of Real Madrid fans, it has taken on greater significance in recent years with the emergence of Atlético as a force at the top end of the table.
To Atlético’s fans, however, there is no bigger rivalry. They see their neighbours as spoilt, entitled representatives of the establishment, and position themselves as the unfancied outsiders.
The last time the two sides met, in the Champions League semi-final back in May, Atleti’s fans summed up their feelings towards Real Madrid with a huge tifo display which declared they were “orgullosos de no ser como vosotros” – proud not to be like you.
Both sides would love to get one over on their rivals, but the importance of victory in Saturday’s game goes much deeper than local bragging rights in the context of their seasons so far.
They are currently level on 23 points, occupying third and fourth positions, with Real Madrid above Atlético on goal difference. That might not sound so bad, but being eight points behind a seemingly inexorable Barcelona means that both have a mountain to climb if they are to challenge for the title.
On top of this, both sides have had problems with personnel and performances so far this season.
Atlético remain unbeaten in the league so far, but have drawn far too many games. They have only won six times in 16 games in all competitions, and are on the brink of exiting the Champions League having failed to win any of their group games to date.
They were at a distinct disadvantage before the season began, having been banned from signing new players after breaking FIFA’s underage transfer rules. But the impact of the ban looked to have been negated by the fact that the squad largely remained intact, with key players Saúl Ñíguez and Antoine Griezmann signing contract extensions.
The inability to renovate the squad has taken its toll though, and they have stagnated somewhat. Many of the clubs aging stars are on the wane, with Gabi and Juanfran in particular struggling to hit their previous heights.
Griezmann has struggled for form, and has only managed to hit the net twice in the league so far, although the fault is not all his own. He has been pretty isolated up front in a team that, in the absence of the injured Koke and Yannick Carrasco, haven’t been creating enough chances for the French striker.
There have even been doubts about manager Diego Simeone, who signed a contract extension in September but is still continually linked with a move away. There is a feeling that he may have taken Atlético as far as he can, and that a change would be good for both him and the club.
There are positives for Atlético, though, as Koke and Carrasco could both return to the side to face Real Madrid, and will provide some much-needed spark in a team that seems bereft of ideas at present. The impending arrival of Vitolo and Diego Costa once the transfer ban has been lifted in January could provide the shot in the arm Atleti’s season desperately needs.
It hasn’t gone to plan for Real Madrid this season either. They went into the season as favourites following their double-winning exploits last season, but surprise defeats to Real Betis and Girona and home draws with Levante and Valencia have left them well off the pace.
Their problems have been compounded by a loss of form and fitness for their forward line, and an alarming lack of strength in depth.
Gareth Bale has suffered yet another injury setback this week, and his return to full fitness looks to be some way off. Karim Benzema is going through his worst run of form since joining the club, and has been barracked by his own fans on a number of occasions. Even Cristiano Ronaldo’s goalscoring touch has evaded him. Ronaldo has been playing pretty well, but just one goal in seven La Liga appearances is a dramatic downturn for a man whose previous goalscoring record is nothing short of heroic.
A lack of viable striking options in reserve has left them dependent on Isco’s hot streak, but the in-form Malagueño is a doubt for the derby after picking up a knock on international duty. Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane will be hoping for rising star Marco Asensio to make an impact, or for a timely return to goalscoring form for Ronaldo and Benzema.
Both sides could really do with a win to kickstart their spluttering season, but in truth the win is more important to Real Madrid than it is to Atlético. While the Rojiblancos would obviously welcome the three points, and would love nothing more than to rub Real Madrid’s faces further into the dirt, a draw wouldn’t be a catastrophic result for them.
For Real Madrid, on the other hand, a draw could leave them even further behind Barcelona (assuming Barça win at Leganés), and a defeat would be nothing short of disastrous for Zidane’s side.
Matches between the capital’s two heavyweight clubs are always absorbing, but both sides’ struggles have added an extra layer of intrigue to this particular encounter. Whatever the outcome, there is every chance that the result could have a profound impact on the season for both clubs.