Real try to unravel confounding Atleti
How is it possible to unravel something so intricately bound together that it seems utterly impossible? Alexander the Great found a simple answer: take a sword to it.
Carlo Ancelotti faces a modern-day version of the Gordian knot in Friday's Spanish Super Cup second-leg match at the Vicente Calderon. His opposite number, Diego Simeone, has created a defensive unit at Atletico that secured a first league title in 18 years last season and took his side to the Champions League final (although the Rojiblancos fell short at the very final hurdle, two minutes from an improbable victory).
However, the past three matches between the two Madrid sides have ended in stalemate after 90 minutes. Two of those results were 1-1, including Tuesday's opening leg of the tie, and on the evidence of Lisbon that would be a result that would suit Real very nicely in the Calderon. In the European showdown Ancelotti's side could find no answer to Atletico's work rate and discipline in normal time, but Simeone's side went into extra time shattered physically and mentally after Sergio Ramos' hammer blow. The Liga champion was subsequently swept aside in the additional 30 as Real's forwards breached a back line that was on its last legs. Simeone's formula is a potent one, but its demands also carry a best-before date of an hour and half.
The method is fairly straightforward: Atletico's back line is aided by two defensive midfielders -- Gabi and Mario Suarez on Tuesday -- who assisted in doubling or tripling up against Real's wide men, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. Without any outlet on the flanks, Real was squeezed into the centre where Koke and 19-year-old fellow cantera product Saul gave Atletico numerical superiority.
Meanwhile, Real's experimental midfield three of Xabi Alonso, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric lacked defined roles and too often found themselves attempting to perform the same duties. There was little link-up with the front line of Bale, Karim Benzema and Ronaldo and little cohesion when faced with Atletico's attack, which had the better of the first half in terms of chances created. Kroos grew into the game and was a standout performer for the home side but the future of the so-called "trivote" is open to question.
Ancelotti also opted not to start either James Rodriguez or Angel di Maria, but both players offer something different: Ronaldo and Bale thrive on space but James' ability to wind through tight spots and Di Maria's ability to pull defenders out of rigidly defined positions gave Real an extra dimension in the second half. When the two were on the field together in the second half, the home side were at their most dangerous. Simeone even cheekily suggested after the match that Di Maria is Real's most decisive player.
It seems unlikely that Ancelotti will opt for the same lineup on Friday, and at least one of the Colombian and Argentinean should start. Ronaldo is expected to be fit and the Italian has suggested he may start, which could mean Benzema, who was ineffective in the first leg, is shelved for a second installment of the James false nine experiment unveiled in preseason.
In any case, there are factors working against Atletico, not least a completely new front line that has hardly terrorized a defence up to this point of preseason. Simeone noted ahead of the match that his side is "starting from scratch" after losing several key players during the summer. "[Mario] Mandzukic, [Raul] Jimenez and [Antoine] Griezmann are different players than [Diego] Costa, [David] Villa and Adrian," the Argentinean said Thursday. "We have held on to the solid base on which the team is built, but we are looking for the style that best fits what we have."
Certainly the loss of Costa has blunted Atletico's cutting edge: Mandzukic has a lot to live up to, while Griezmann and Jimenez are still feeling their way into the side.
Simeone also suggested that his side will be incapable of competing with Real Madrid and Barcelona this season, although such bluster wore rather thin over the course of last season while Atletico were doing precisely that. But Friday's is a Cup game, which plays into Real's hands. Over 90 minutes the sides have proved themselves to be evenly matched. But Real's resources favour the visiting side if the score is a far-from-improbable 1-1 when the final whistle blows: Cebolla and James, on opposing benches on Tuesday, share a surname but little else.
Atletico's game plan will be unadventurous. A scoreless draw will do fine, and if they can score a goal from a set piece -- the source of their past three against Real -- so much the better. Ancelotti's task is to break one of the toughest back lines in Europe. He has the components to do so, but has yet to find the best way of cutting them loose.