Antoine Griezmann tips Madrid derbi in Atletico's favour as Real falter
MADRID -- Three observations from the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, as Atletico Madrid topped Real Madrid 1-0 in Saturday's derbi clash in La Liga.
1. Griezmann decides the Madrid derbi
Antoine Griezmann's fine second-half goal was enough to settle Saturday's clash between the Spanish capital's top sides. The result was a third successive La Liga win for Diego Simeone's side at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, and was well deserved against Zinedine Zidane's very disappointing and disjointed Madrid outfit.
Madrid had more of the ball in a dull first half, and their best chance came when Cristiano Ronaldo's free kick was beaten away by Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak, with Karim Benzema firing just wide when the rebound was recycled his way.
Atletico had less possession but came closer. Fine work between Koke and Saul Niguez down the left led to a Griezmann 25-yard effort that brought a flying stop from Los Blancos keeper Keylor Navas. Soon afterward, Navas also had to be alert to stop Koke's low effort at his near post.
The pace was upped after the break, and Ronaldo had a super chance to open the scoring. The Portuguese had time inside the area to take a touch, but drove his low shot wide of the far post. That miss looked even bigger a few minutes later when Atletico went ahead.
Gabi was quicker the to ball in midfield than Isco, and it fell to Griezmann, who was able to turn and run right at the defence, with no midfield cover. He exchanged passes with Filipe Luis and was still free to fire in from 12 yards. The Frenchman's first goal in six games was well taken, but a poor one for Los Blancos to concede.
Madrid huffed and puffed to try to come back into the game, with Ronaldo sending a free header straight at Oblak from eight yards out in their best opportunity. But Atletico looked comfortable and easily saw out the game to win the three points -- and the bragging rights in the Spanish capital.
2. Zidane effect already worn off
Zidane's first games as Madrid coach at the Bernabeu were lots of fun, as the gloomy mood from the final months of Rafa Benitez's time in charge was dispelled with a party of goals and attacking football.
There was a nervous mood early on Saturday among the home fans -- in just the stadium's third sellout of the season -- that heightened as the game went on. Madrid tended to have long spells of possession, moving the ball around in front of Atletico's super-organised two lines of four players, but not finding a way through.
The ball would often move from Toni Kroos to Luka Modric to Dani Carvajal, back to Raphael Varane, across to Modric, in to Isco, back over to James Rodriguez, and then Atletico would get a foot in and clear, to groans around the stadium.
€80 million man James was having an especially unproductive afternoon, and was booed after a couple of misplaced passes were easily intercepted. Madrid's players were also getting frustrated, with Ronaldo letting fly with a 25-yard effort that he dragged well wide.
On the touchline, Zidane was constantly moving and talking to his players, but to little obvious effect. By half-time, there were whistles for the home side.
Sending on 18-year-old Borja Mayoral for his first La Liga minutes at the break seemed a pretty desperate move. The youngster did show plenty of enthusiasm and ambition, but for the world's richest club to be relying on such an inexperienced player was telling. Ronaldo has now not scored in his past five derbis. The injured Gareth Bale was badly missed, not that he has a good record against Atletico either.
Should Barcelona win at home against Sevilla Sunday night, they will be 12 points ahead of Madrid with 12 games to play. Los Blancos now have no realistic chance of winning this year's title.
It is exactly 10 years today since Florentino Perez's first spell as Real Madrid coach ended with him resigning as his first Galacticos project fizzled out embarrassingly. There were plenty of "Florentino resign" chants around the Bernabeu during the second half, albeit with other parts of the stadium trying to drown it out with whistles. There were whistles and white hankies at the Bernabeu at full-time.
Madrid's hopes this season now rest on Champions League success, or the futures of both Zidane and Perez will be very uncertain.
3. Atletico plan works to perfection
Atletico came to the Bernabeu having won on their past two La Liga visits, and Simeone's side had a clear idea of how they planned to set out and get a result again.
When Madrid had the ball, Atletico's defenders and midfield were happy to stay deep and compact and allow their opponents to move the ball around in front of them -- and then pounce on a mistake and look to use the willing running of Griezmann and Fernando Torres on the break.
That plan worked pretty well, but also required Atletico to actually score, and they clicked past 300 minutes without a goal in any game late in the first half. Griezmann did however take his first real chance really well, and from there he grew in confidence, at one point skipping past three challenges on the wing, as Simeone urged his side to get a second.
The former Real Sociedad player was also putting in Trojan work without the ball. At one point he was in his own six-yard area to stop a cross reaching Madrid substitute Jese Rodriguez, and seconds later he was carrying the ball out of defence and drawing a foul from Sergio Ramos to allow his team to regroup.
Atletico are still very unlikely to catch Barcelona at the top of the table, but Simeone regularly says he knows they cannot compete with this Blaugrana side of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez. Being clear in second spot, four points ahead of their richer, flashier crosstown neighbours, is more than enough to keep him and Atletico happy.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan