50-50 Challenge: Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid meet in Copa del Rey
La Liga's winter break has given teams some time off, but the Copa del Rey action hits hard hard after a weekend of results that saw Real's 22-match unbeaten streak ended. Nicholas Rigg (Real) and Joseph Walker (Atletico) preview Wednesday's action as the Madrid derby takes centre stage.
What shape are you in ahead of this one?
Joe Walker: Not bad, not bad at all. An emphatic 3-1 win over Levante on Saturday was followed by the return of Fernando Torres (on loan from Milan) on Sunday, with the Vicente Calderon packed full of fans welcoming their hero back home and spirits high. If anything, Atletico's defence could do with a bit of work, given they were uncharacteristically shaky at the weekend, however they tend to stand up and be counted in the big games. Going forward the side are purring, with Mario Mandzukic and Antoine Griezmann showing glimpses of a fruitful partnership, while the engine room of Tiago, Koke and Gabi all look to have benefited from a couple of weeks off over the festive period.
Nicholas Rigg: Confidence will have taken a knock after the 22-game winning run came to an end with defeat at Valencia on Sunday, but there will be no signs of panic yet, even though this is Real Madrid.
Manager Carlo Ancelotti will be hoping his men just had an off day at the Mestalla, but there will be some concern at the physical state of his team after they were out-fought by a hard-working Los Che side -- one that will play with much the same intensity as Atleti are expected to on Wednesday night. Maybe that trip to Dubai to play AC Milan in a money-spinning friendly wasn't such a great idea after all.
One defeat in 23, of course, isn't bad going, but the Calderon clash will now take on a bigger importance for the holders after Sunday's setback. Back-to-back defeats constitute a minor disaster in the surroundings of the Santiago Bernabeu.
How important is this match in the context of your season?
JW: While the agenda in the Spanish media may be focused on Real Madrid's difficult January, Atletico's is arguably more testing. For reasons unknown, the Copa del Rey is held over two legs, with a tie against Barcelona likely to await the winners, and an Atleti victory would mean five games against the "big two" this calendar month (the champions travel to Catalonia in La Liga this weekend.) Therefore, it sounds strange to say, but it might actually better for Los Rojiblancos to forget about the cup and concentrate on the league after Los Blancos' slip up away to Valencia on Sunday.
However, there is also a school of thought that a win over the old enemy could be just the springboard Diego Simeone's side need as they ramp up their defence of their Liga title. Face it, there is no chance the Argentine will be taking this one lightly, but a defeat would not be the end of the world for reasons stated.
NR: A match not only against a derby foe but against one that is now a recognised rival for trophies is enough to make the tie big enough as a stand-alone fixture. However, the defeat at the Mestalla has made it even bigger for Ancelotti and his men, who know all about the backlash from the fans and press after consecutive defeats earlier this season.
The Copa del Rey may fall behind La Liga and the Champions League in the trophy hierarchy, but it takes on much more importance than it did a decade ago. Madrid are also holders and the fact it was the first trophy Ancelotti won as boss may add some romance for the Italian.
In the long run, an early exit probably won't have a knock-on effect on the club's ambitions in the league and Champions League. Indeed, it may ease the pressure with a probable doubleheader against Barcelona awaiting the winner, but there is plenty at stake in this one and Madrid will not want to suffer defeat.
JW: The easy answer would be Torres, however, without wanting to be cruel, if the last five years are anything to go by he will not trouble the scoreboard. Antoine Griezmann, however, is in fine fettle, and his brace at the weekend means he is now the club's top scorer in the league this season despite only playing a peripheral role. He seems to be revelling in the challenge the arrival of Torres presents, and has five goals in his last two games; three of which have been headers -- not bad for a man who measures just 5-foot-7.
Griezmann set up Mandzukic for the Super Cup winner between the teams in August and was also involved in the build up as Arda Turan swept home to seal a 2-1 victory when they met at the Bernabeu in September. His guile, in addition to his penchant for turning on the style in big games, could be the difference once again. An honourable mention must go to Juanfran, who will tirelessly look to push forward and exploit the space left by Marcelo as the Brazilian rampages forward from left-back.
NR: You can't avoid the obvious. Cristiano Ronaldo netted his 26th league goal of the season at the weekend, his 31st in all competitions. The Portuguese star is also expected to pick up his second straight Ballon d'Or on Monday as the best player on the planet.
Atletico have specialised in winning the midfield battle in most of the contests between the capital clubs in recent seasons and that will mean players who can make something from nothing, such as Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, will be more important than ever.
The former Manchester United man killed the tie when the sides met at the semifinal stage last season with two early goals in the second leg at the Calderon. Madrid cruised to a 3-0 first leg lead and Ronaldo scored twice from the spot inside 16 minutes in the return leg to secure Madrid's passage to the final -- and eventually the trophy.
JW: This one has to be Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored his 26th Liga goal at the weekend (meanwhile Griezmann has eight.) The figure is somewhat mitigated given his side have been awarded an inordinate amount of penalties this season -- but that is another debate for another day. Nevertheless, he is in the goal-scoring form of his life, and having not impressed in his last few outings against Atleti, and with the Ballon d'Or ceremony drawing closer, he will want to ensure he is the man everyone is talking about.
NR: Antoine Griezmann has started 2015 as he finished 2014 -- with goals. The Frenchman scored a hat trick in Atleti's 4-1 victory at Athletic Bilbao before the winter break and hit the ground running with a brace in his side's 3-1 success against Levante on Saturday to make him the club's top scorer with eight so far this term.
It has taken a while for the former Real Sociedad man to find his feet under Simeone, but he now goes into Wednesday night's game as the man Madrid will fear the most alongside creators Koke and Arda Turan.
Whisper it quietly, but Madrid fans are also well aware that Fernando Torres will be especially eager for a dream return to "his" club. The return of El Nino was ratified on Monday and he will be available for selection. Perhaps Simeone will eye a super-sub appearance from the former Chelsea and Liverpool man after 45,000 fans attended his presentation on Sunday.
JW: Defeat at Valencia means that Real Madrid are just an Atletico slip up away from a crisis (despite have just won 22 consecutive games -- the mind boggles), and their players will be determined to ensure that does not happen. Having said that, in the three meetings between the sides thus far this campaign, Simeone's men are undefeated, having won two and drawn one. I don't expect that statistic to change on Wednesday and fancy Atleti to sneak a 2-1 win.
NR: 1-1. Although the onus will be on Atleti at home, a two-legged tie will ensure neither side take too many risks in the first game. Madrid breezed into a 3-0 lead from the first leg in last season's competition and Simeone will not want a repeat. The world record attempt for consecutive wins is also out of the window for Madrid so Ancelotti should be happy enough to take Atleti back to the Bernabeu all-square.