Madrid derby still matters despite La Liga seemingly destined for Barcelona
And so to derby day, the capital divided. Rivals, Champions League finalists, the first teams from the same city ever to face each other in world football's most important annual fixture. Two of Europe's biggest clubs fighting it out for another title: a massive match, a title decider, the league at stake, death or glory and all that stuff, a must-win clash with no second chances. Win and it's game on, lose and you lose the lot, finished, kaput, The End, adiós...
Asked if the team that loses Saturday's match at the Santiago Bernabéu will have to bid farewell to the league title, Atlético Madrid full-back Filipe Luis replied: "No. We've already said goodbye to the league: Barcelona are beyond us all." Ah, right. Yeah, that.
This has been an unusual derby week. It's not just that many believe Madrid's two teams have said goodbye to the title; it's that they have just said goodbye to the title, that it happened right now, in the buildup to the derby. Thunder stolen, hype burst. Six days have passed since Málaga's fans giggled their way through the final minutes of a 1-1 draw with Real Madrid, waving and singing "Goodbye to the league, goodbye!"
The Madrid derby opens Week 26, at 4 p.m. Saturday. Week 25 closed with Barcelona having gained two points on every team in the top five, taking a big step toward winning another league. It has been five days since El Mundo Deportivo's front page ran "Nine points ahead" -- just as they had run on "Seven points ahead" three days before that, when Barcelona had beaten Sporting Gijón at the Molinón. The headline was accompanied by another: "Game Over."
That wasn't quite right. Not when it came to the figures, anyway.
Barcelona are nine points ahead of Real Madrid and eight ahead of Atlético -- but who cares about Atléti, right? Barcelona's lead is even greater than that: They also have an unassailable advantage over Atlético when it comes to head-to-head goal difference, meaning that Diego Simeone's side would have to claw back nine points on them to win the league. Meanwhile, for Madrid to win the league, they would not just have to pull back nine points on Barcelona, but it would need to include a win of 4-0 or better in the clásico. In other words, in all probability, they have to recover 10 points to take the title.
Even if Real and Atlético win every game, they would need Barcelona to lose three times (and in Real's case, probably draw another) in 13 games to take the title. Of course, Barcelona has two losses and three draws in the previous 25 matches. And Atletico and Real both can't win every game from now until the end of the season. They can't even both win every game between now and the end of the weekend.
This is a must-win match, for sure. Lose and it really is all over -- if it wasn't already, as Luis insisted. For him, it was easier to say. Atlético manager Diego Simeone insisted after his side drew at the weekend that they were still on course for the "objective" -- third place, not the title.
For Madrid's players, it was different. On the other side of the divide, no one will admit that it's over. They can't, and they shouldn't.
"It is complicated but we'll fight to the end," Cristiano Ronaldo insisted.
Said manager Zinedine Zidane: "You think it's lost, but it's not for me, absolutely not: we won't give up."
What they would admit is that they are on the edge now. "Slip up once more and we can forget it," Sergio Ramos said.
This week has been about selling optimism -- from Borja Mayoral to Roma, from Ronaldo to Paul Pogba -- but not when it comes to the league title. In fact, history tells us that Madrid win in Europe when they don't win at home. This week, the Madrid media has told us that, too; don't worry about what's happening at home. One columnist asked "where has the derby gone," complaining that there'd been "no comments, no reports, no veterans' dinners, nothing at all." It was quite the exaggeration, but it's true that there has been something missing.
Draws last weekend contributed to the sense that a league title was slipping away, and so, too, did the fact that Atlético were in Eindhoven on Wednesday night. For both teams, the Champions League is more likely to define their season now, a clear priority. La Liga couldn't even become the immediate focus for Atletico until they returned home, and they didn't do that until Thursday morning, traveling by bus from Eindhoven to Amsterdam, where they caught a flight that touched down at Barajas past 6 a.m. Just 58 hours later, the derby kicks off.
Atlético made their way back from Eindhoven with another 0-0 draw. They've now gone 269 minutes without scoring since Fernando Torres got the opener in the second minute against Getafe. Antoine Griezmann, their top scorer, has not scored in five games, Koke is not playing well and they are missing Tiago, out with a broken leg, more than many anticipated. Who knows, they may even come to miss Jackson Martinez, who left for China earlier this month.
"Lack of goals?" Simeone said. "I'm the king of patience and I know the goals will come."
"When one arrives, the rest will," Griezmann said.
But it is a concern, all the more so if Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco, who did at least train on Friday, doesn't make it for kickoff.
The good news for Atletico, of course, is that if they don't score many goals, they don't often have to. Their defence is the strongest in the division and no one has a better record away from home. At the Bernabéu, they face the team that has scored the most goals this season and whose results at home under Zidane read 5-0, 5-1, 6-0 and 4-2, prompting a debate as to why they are so different away, where they have won one late, and drawn two. It's a debate that is partly false: Everyone is different away and at home, they've faced opponents that they would be expected to beat. Yes, maybe even hammer.
Madrid are still without Gareth Bale -- a two- to three-week calf injury has kept him out for 40 days, and he has missed two-thirds of the minutes this season -- but Karim Benzema is back in training after his hip injury, and Ronaldo has played all but two minutes this season. He is also showing signs of being the Ronaldo he was 18 months ago, and he and his teammates have had a week to prepare. But this won't be easy. Which is the way it should be, and which is also the point.
Ronaldo has scored two goals in nine games against Atlético, who won in the league at the Bernabéu and the Calderón last season, knocked Madrid out of the Cup and took the Spanish Super Cup, too. They were beaten only once in eight games last season -- although it did bring about their elimination in Europe.
Whoever loses on Saturday will surely be eliminated from league contention. But even if they are, the derby matters, for 90 minutes and beyond. Beyond titles, games have an intrinsic interest and importance, a value of their own that's too easily overlooked. Competition is not just about what happens at the end of the season, but at the end of the match. At the end of a match like this, especially. And match is the word.
"The derby used to be 'easy,' " Guti said this week. Used to be. Real Madrid vs. Atlético Madrid on Saturday afternoon may have lost something when Barcelona climbed clear of them both last Sunday, but it remains a big match. For too long, it was barely a match at all.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.