Can Real Madrid's speedy attack under Zinedine Zidane break Atletico down?
When Jurgen Klopp arrived at Liverpool to replace Brendan Rodgers, he did so with a messianic aura surrounding him. Surely the German joker and his fancy gegenpressing would wash away the sins of the Northern Irishman's latter-day tenure at Anfield. Well, not quite. When Rodgers was given the boot, Liverpool were three points off fourth place in the league and for every step forward -- the 4-1 slicing and dicing of Manchester City for example -- there has been another one back under Klopp. A 3-0 drubbing by Watford stands out. Liverpool are now nine points adrift of the Champions League places.
But Klopp has a trump card: a cup final. It's only the League Cup, hardly a top priority in England, but he has led Liverpool to a final after just a few months in the job.
The parallels with Zinedine Zidane are obvious. The Frenchman was greeted with awe and a sense of relief after the departure of Rafa Benitez -- like Rodgers, a manager given to grandiose speeches about philosophies. Zidane arrived with a simpler premise: get the team playing football the fans will enjoy. Benitez left Real two points shy of Barcelona in the standings. Now that gap stands at nine points, although in mitigation Barcelona did have a game in hand against Sporting.
Spain, mercifully, has no equivalent of the League Cup. The Copa del Rey is maligned enough as it is under its current format but it does offer a route to first season success. Say what you will about Jose Mourinho; he was canny enough to recognize that the Copa was his best chance of bagging some silver with a squad yet to be moulded entirely in his own image. Carlo Ancelotti also lifted the trophy in his debut season in 2013-14, adding the more lustrous Champions League a month later. Had Atletico held on for two minutes longer in Lisbon, Ancelotti would have still have been lauded for the Copa as he had masterminded a victory over Barcelona. The identity of the opposition was of more importance than the nature of the prize. Real finished third in the league that year; nobody really noticed.
Zidane essentially has two cup finals this season: Atletico at home and Barcelona away. Winning both of those games will be a huge statement. Real may have left their league challenge on the pitch at La Rosaleda last weekend but nothing is etched in silver until the numbers say so. Real probably won't win the league but six points against their direct rivals will airbrush their eventual finishing position quite nicely. It will also lay down a marker for next season.
On Saturday, Diego Simeone's side travel across the capital to the Bernabeu for the Madrid derby. The Argentinean also arrived in his current job on a wave of optimism and goodwill and the history of this match can be neatly split between "Before Diego" and "After Diego." For 14 years BD, Real were the lords and masters of the derby. On May 17, 2013, two years AD, Real were beaten in the final of the Copa del Rey. Since then, Madrid have failed to win in five Liga fixtures, with Atletico victorious in three and two other games drawn.
Zidane knows the importance of this match only too well. His reputation has not been tainted by association with the 2015-16 season so far -- like Rodgers, Benitez is the fall guy for another busted flush. Beating Atletico, and at least not getting beaten by Barcelona, is a tangible goal.
The good news for Zidane ahead of Saturday's game is that Atletico are having trouble locating it. Simeone's side have failed to score in their last two outings and managed just one against Getafe two weeks ago, their sixth 1-0 win in La Liga this season. Real have scored twice as many goals as Saturday's opposition, who have the third-lowest total in the top 10. At the other end, Atletico have conceded just 11 times in 25 games.
Zidane's task is clear and tested. In every home game under the Frenchman so far, Real have come out blazing, looking for an early goal to crush any resistance. Atletico are a tough nut to crack but if Real open the scoring, it will be difficult for the visitors to find a way back into the game. Antoine Griezmann shoulders the scoring burden practically single-handed but the French forward hasn't found the net in five Liga games. Griezmann has 12 league goals for the season. His strike partners, Luciano Vietto, Angel Correa and Fernando Torres, have seven between them.
Zidane will have to manage without Marcelo and may elect to draft Dani Carvajal in at left-back as he did against Athletic, with Danilo on the right. Pepe remains sidelined with a foot problem and Gareth Bale is also out, but the biggest concern for Zidane is Karim Benzema, who is struggling with a back problem but should be fit to play. Without Benzema, Real's attack often lacks cohesion and the Frenchman's link-up play between midfield and attack is vital to the side's forward momentum. He is also on his best scoring run since his arrival at the Bernabeu, averaging a goal a game in the league.
Benzema should be fit but if he isn't, Zidane has a trick up his sleeve: 18-year-old Borja Mayoral. The Castilla striker has been in excellent form this season and if he does make a full home debut, there will be a few Real fans with long memories wistfully recalling another, in 1994, when Raul got his first start at the Bernabeu and scored in a 4-2 win against Atletico.
Simeone was on the losing side that day. Zidane's tenure at Real will look a lot rosier at 6 p.m. on Saturday if that is the case again.
Rob Train is a freelance writer who lives in Madrid and covers Real Madrid for ESPN. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.