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Jan 22, 2008

Every underdog has its day... or not

Without wishing to impinge on the turf expertly occupied by my colleague Phil Ball, I feel compelled to discuss Atletico Madrid this week.

I'll admit it: I feel rather sorry for the poor old 'mattress-makers' after another demoralising derby defeat at the hands of Real Madrid. Yes, I know we commentators must strive for neutrality, but this one has lost count of the number of hard luck stories Atletico have suffered against their city rivals throughout my stint covering La Liga for ESPN.

For those who don't follow the Primera on a regular basis, we must rewind the derby tape to 30 October, 1999 for Atletico's last league victory over Real. Yes, not since the halcyon days of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink wearing the red and white stripes, have Atletico been able to celebrate at the expense of the other lot.

Another confession is probably in order here. I listened for days to so much of the bold talk from the Atletico camp in the run-up to Sunday's 2-0 defeat; I began to believe it myself. Maxi Rodriguez, captain of the 'colchoneros' assured us it was going to be 2-0 the other way: what's more Raul Garcia and Maxi himself were going to be the players to do the damage. He saw it with crystal clarity. It was as though Bill Beswick or a Spanish proxy had been retained for the week.

Real Madrid looked vulnerable, playing functional not fantasy football ahead of the game. What's more, Mallorca had just knocked them out of the national cup competition, the Copa del Rey. Surely, it was Atletico's turn to reverse the trend of nearly a decade.

Then the game at the Calderon Stadium kicked off, and we were taken back in time to many a Madrid derby of the recent past. That it took Raul no more than 31 seconds to open Real Madrid's account really shouldn't have surprised those of us who've been over this course before.

More crushing, was Ruud van Nistelrooy's second goal for the visitors four minutes from the half-time interval, on the heels of incessant pressure from Atletico. Denied twice by the woodwork, Javier Aguirre's team had the misfortune of encountering Iker Casillas at his inspirational best. (Nothing new there, mind you!)

We all knew it was effectively finished after that. Real Madrid, in their modern day incarnation under Bernd Schuster, are the masters of killing a game, once in front.

Atletico supporters, while understandably dejected after this latest derby reverse, know far more quality exists within the squad than they've seen for over a decade. We can start with Pablo at centre half (notwithstanding his horror show on Sunday), two gifted left backs in Antonio Lopez and Mariano Pernia, classy wide men in Simao and Maxi Rodgriuez, and a formidable South American strike partnership of Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan.

Understandably disappointed with Sunday's kick in the teeth, the mattress-makers mustn't lose sight of the real goal this season: UEFA Champions League qualification. It's eminently attainable, but I feel it can only be achieved if Atletico improve significantly against the cream of the Primera crop. Their five league defeats this season have all come against teams currently in the top five; Real Madrid (twice now), Barcelona, Villarreal and Espanyol.

We're going to learn a lot about the resilience of Atletico Madrid between now and the middle of May.


The underdog lover in me wishes Werder Bremen the best of luck when the Bundesliga season returns at the end of next week. There's the added bonus that Werder are perhaps more committed to open, attacking football than any leading team in Europe.

Frankly, I didn't think they would be able to push big-spending Bayern Munich this season. The two sides, however, are level on 36 points at the halfway stage.

That Werder Bremen are still prospering, having sold their biggest asset Miroslav Klose, to Bayern last summer, spells out how remarkably resourceful coach Thomas Schaaf and general manager Klaus Allofs continue to be. But can they keep it going?

Tim Borowksi has now confirmed he'll become the latest Bremen player to defect to Bayern Munich next season. At least stories linking Allofs with the very same destination in mind have been played down by the former West German international himself. Yet his contract is up in 2009, and other German clubs will be monitoring the Allofs situation closely.

Bremen face Bochum in their first league match since the break, on 3 February.

The news that Torsten Frings, (who has missed most of the season), has suffered another knee injury and could now be out for an additional six to eight weeks, leads one to think that a gargantuan effort will be required from the men in green.

Considering the strength of their main rivals, a Werder championship triumph this term, would go down as one of the all-time great Bundesliga performances.


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