Honours even between Real and Atleti
The standard statistics were dusted off ahead of the latest meeting between all-too-familiar foes Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid on Tuesday in the Santiago Bernabeu: Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 13 goals in 14 Madrid derby matches; Iker Casillas, restored in the Real goal after a week of hand-wringing in the capital, has never been on the losing side in 27 derby matches; Real had most recently failed to score at home 26 matches ago, in a 1-0 loss to Atlético, and had scored in their past 13 Super Cup matches.
But the one statistic that has traditionally haunted Atletico has been shelved definitively; that irritating bone in the throat of not having beaten Real in 14 years was finally ejected in the 2013 Copa del Rey final.
Today, there is more parity between the sides, at least on the pitch. Diego Simeone noted drily this week that while Real can spend 95 million euros on two players, Atletico has had to build a new squad with the same amount.
Nevertheless, Tuesday's 1-1 draw was the fourth consecutive stalemate over 90 minutes between the sides. Atletico's game plan to stifle Real's creativity and hit on the counterattack again asked questions of Carlo Ancelotti's side that will be repeated by many other teams this season, at home and on the continent.
The first and foremost of these, which dominated the match buildup, was whether James Rodriguez or Angel Di Maria should start. Ancelotti's answer to the particular problem was to leave both on the bench and field Toni Kroos on the left of midfield in a 4-3-3, which handed the responsibility to launch attacks to the German international.
The range of passing Kroos displayed wooed the Bernabeu, but equally impressive was his combative performance in the face of Atletico's robust blueprint. The German seemed to positively enjoy the physical confrontation, and he was instrumental in Real's battle to control the midfield.
Both Di Maria and James would come to the fore in the second half, when the game eventually came to life.
Simeone, as was forecast, set up his side in a 4-4-2 with Mario Suarez and Gabi screening the back four. Little wonder with such a brick wall to break through that the first shot of the match came on 11 minutes, when Gareth Bale fired wide.
Real failed to muster a single shot on target in the opening 45 minutes, as Atletico stifled the home side's creativity, despite Real enjoying the lion's share of possession.
Seemingly fresh out of ideas, it took a most unexpected source to force Ancelotti into a change at halftime: Cristiano Ronaldo, who had hardly been his imposing self, was forced off with a problem in his left leg and replaced by James, who slotted into the front three.
Bale drew Atletico keeper Miguel Angel Moya into action for the first time shortly after the restart, as Real began to assert their game on the visitor. In the course of the second half, Real's shot tally rose to 18, with four on target.
The one that counted came from James, who broke the deadlock with his second attempt in a Real shirt, even though his celebration, which was suitably exuberant, was better than the goal, which took a wicked deflection on the way in.
Raul García was booked for encroachment in what it should be hoped is a precursor of things to come in the shiny new era of the vanishing spray, and Bale's retake stung Moya's hands and fell invitingly to Kroos, whose only poor touch of the evening threatened the Barajas flight path but not the Atletico keeper.
It was the sort of chance that Karim Benzema might have been expected to be on the end of as Real's only out-and-out striker, but the Frenchman had one of those nights.
More worryingly for Ancelotti and his staff was the manner of Atletico's equalizer, which, exactly like the Rojiblanco's last two goals against Madrid, came courtesy of a set-piece.
As the Real defence moved en masse toward the ball, Garcia pulled away and guided the corner past a helpless Iker Casillas, who will no doubt face minute scrutiny between now and Friday, especially after Ancelotti said postmatch that he had decided on his first-choice stopper but wasn't going to say who it is.
In spite of all the debate raging over Casillas and whether he should be dropped for Keylor Navas, the set-piece conundrum remains Real's Achilles heel.
The first leg of this year's Super Cup was played much as might be expected for what is a glorified friendly; Real were slightly superior in terms of play, while Atletico perhaps won the physical battle. But the manner of the visitors' equalizer -- and its timing -- should be of more concern to Real Madrid than who should start in goal or in midfield.
A huge ovation for Di Maria was a message to the board, but a move for a central defender before the transfer window closes would be cheered even louder.