Inaugural Madrid derby at the Wanda is one neither side can afford to lose
A lot has changed since Real Madrid last visited their bitter city rivals.
Atletico Madrid beat Los Blancos in the second leg of the Champions League semifinal in May. Early goals from Saul and Antoine Griezmann caused the Estadio Vicente Calderon to pulsate. But Madrid had already done the hard work. A 3-0 victory at the Bernabeu in the first leg provided enough of a cushion to carry Zinedine Zidane's side to the final in Cardiff.
"There is nothing more empty than an empty stadium," mused Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. The Calderon now leads that curious existence. It sits on the banks of the Manzanares River, eerie and gathering dust. Stadiums are more than just venues for sporting contest. They are repositories for shared experiences, memories and rituals.
The Derbi Madrileno on Saturday will be the first to be held at Atletico's new stadium, 10 miles east of the Calderon on the outskirts of the city. The Wanda Metropolitano is, in many ways, the antithesis of their old home. State-of-the-art rather than charmingly antiquated. Sleek rather than shabby. From now on, things will be a little bit different when Atleti host their uptown rivals.
Beyond the new surroundings, the tone has also changed for Real Madrid. When the teams last met, Zidane was ushering his squad to a Champions League and La Liga double. The "Plan B" side made up of exciting young fringe players was seamless. The short-term future looked good for Madrid, and the medium term even better. Atleti, too, harboured ambitions of winning the European crown that had eluded them for several years.
Seven months later, Madrid are eight points behind Barcelona in the league, with little room for error. The leaders could extend that gap to 11 points if they beat Leganes in the afternoon kickoff. Unsurprisingly, Zidane has denied that his side are in the "last-chance saloon": "I recognise we are a long way behind Barcelona, but there is still time to catch them and pass them out," the 45-year-old reasoned. But away from the cameras and the microphones of the press room, Zidane will know that a loss would be devastating.
Madrid are not playing well. The team looks disjointed and stale. And the player they so often turn to, Cristiano Ronaldo, has scored just one goal in La Liga this season.
Their opposition on Saturday find themselves in a similar position. Colchoneros of a chippy disposition would point to Atleti's unbeaten record in the league this season, which has them level on 23 points with Real Madrid. And despite concerning aerial vulnerability in defence, Atleti have conceded six goals in 11 matches. Only Barcelona (4) boast a more miserly record.
Yet there is plenty of ammunition for glass-half-empty types.
"We don't have a player who wins us games on his own," rued Diego Simeone before Atleti's trip to Deportivo La Coruna. That statement was interesting, and concerning, for two reasons.
Firstly, the Argentine manager is clearly underwhelmed by Griezmann's contribution this campaign. Atleti's No. 7 has scored two goals in La Liga this season, the last of which came almost two months ago in a 2-0 victory over Sevilla.
"I'm not concerned, I'm delighted with my form," he maintained. "Eventually the ball will go in. The only time I've felt pressure was when I held my daughter."
It is hard to avoid drawing parallels with Ronaldo, his fellow misfiring talisman.
Secondly, Simeone's gripe is indicative of systemic problems with his team. Reliance on individual brilliance is only a necessary escape mechanism if the team, as a collective, is not functioning. Within this context, victory for the home side would be imbued with added significance. It could have the effect of a rock being dropped in a stagnating pool of water, sending ripples of rejuvenation outwards.
While Simeone grapples with such problems, Zidane has received positive news from the treatment room. Gareth Bale, Keylor Navas and Mateo Kovacic will be unavailable. But Luka Modric, Isco and Dani Carvajal have overcome various ailments and will be ready for selection.
The French coach faces a Dani Ceballos-shaped selection quandary. The 21-year-old midfielder has only played 284 minutes for Madrid since moving north from Real Betis in the summer. Yet his performances for Spain Under-21s -- including a sumptuous hat trick against Slovakia during the international break -- have fed a wave of support in favour of Zidane handing Ceballos a starting berth against Atleti.
Yet it would be surprising if Zidane does not stick by his trusty, sturdy lieutenants. The inaugural derbi at the Wanda Metropolitano is one that neither side can allow the other to win.
Matt McGinn is ESPN FC's Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93