It may just be November but Atletico are facing a near impossible task should they find themselves on the losing side of the Madrid derby this weekend. Diego Simeone’s side are already 6 points off the pace at the top of La Liga and a defeat to bitter rivals Real would leave los Colcheneros trailing the current league leaders by 9 points.
There are still two quarters of the season to get through, but falling that far behind to a team as dominant and star-studded as Real would leave Atletico with almost too much to do. Zinedine Zidane’s side don’t drop too many points, and remain the only unbeaten side in Spain’s top flight division. The never-say-die, unbeatable mentality of invincibility counts for a lot during a campaign, producing the type of characters that refuse to lose. It’s evident, despite being charge for less than a year, that ‘Zizou’ has instilled such an atmosphere at the Santiago Bernabeau.
Another side who are known for their unwillingness to accept defeat is Atletico, of course. Simeone’s side have built their reputation on stubborn 1-0 victories, especially in the more anticipated and meaningful matches, with the contest vs Real on Saturday as important as it gets. Consecutive away defeats to Real Sociedad and Sevilla have brought about the negative feeling that surrounded the club following the two draws against newly promoted Leganes and Alaves earlier on in the season. What occurred in between was some good football and even better results but football fans have a short memory. It’s the recent losses that has the minds of Atleti’s fanbase consumed with gloomy thoughts.
The starting eleven for Saturday’s match-up isn’t too hard to predict. Saúl will operate on the right, cutting in as Atleti switch to a 4-3-3 during their defensive sets, while Yannick Carrasco will be looked upon to provide width on the left side. A central midfield of Gabi and Koke, supported by the two in front of them in Kevin Gameiro and Antoine Griezmann, and covered by Diego Godin and Stefan Savic in central defence. Filipe Luis and Juanfran operating on the flanks and Jan Oblak in goal. It’s not the hardest team to guess, but that doesn’t limit the effectiveness all 11 players can have when fitting in with each other. Ask Barcelona, who Atletico should have beaten back in September at the Camp Nou. Direct a question to Bayern Munich on just how good Atleti can be when working as a team. A 1-0 win in the Champions League group stage showcased the ultimate strengths of Simeone’s system. Constant pressure on those in possession led to much space opening up to attack when retrieving the ball. It’s how Carrasco found the back of the net in the fixture and it’s most likely how los Rojiblancos will find the net on Saturday should they manage to knock one past Keylor Navas.
It isn’t just Real who could distance themselves from Atletico in the title race on Saturday. The defending champions, Barcelona, have a home encounter with Malaga and a win there would see them move 7 points clear of Atleti. It would leave Simeone’s team in a tough position should they fall so far behind their title contenders so early on. Two defeats to Barca and Real, in this hypothetical but possible situation, would still see both teams stay on top of Atletico. While the two footballing giants seem to be more vulnerable this year than in previous ones, needing a combined 6 defeats between the two is an unrealistic scenario.
Predicting the tactics from Simeone is almost as easy as guessing the first 11 players on the team sheet for Saturday. Atletico will look to press their opposition, winning the ball back to create counter-attacking opportunities and remain tight defensively. It’s been successful on many occasions before that there is no need to switch the game plan. But what if this time around, the risk of not winning far outweighs the risk of losing? Can Atletico really afford to fall further behind Barcelona while failing to take advantage of their home match against Real? It may not be time to panic but a draw may just feel like a defeat on Saturday. Typically, Atleti find themselves just 3 or 4 points from Real or Barca when these fixtures come around which allows them to set up for what is mostly looked upon as a positive result. This time around, however, they find themselves in a peculiar situation.
It’s unlikely that we see a more attacking effort at the weekend. The expected inclusion of Saúl over the fit again Nico Gaitan will be evidence of that. One provides more of a creative, attacking spark while the other offers an all-round effort, both defensively and offensively. The latter is the perfect description of a Simeone-moulded player. And it’s also the sort of figure that the manager likes to see out on the pitch for games like the one that’s coming up.
There’s only so many times this year when those associated with the club can claim "it’s early yet" and "there’s a long way to go before the end of the season". Those who sing from this hymn sheet are factually correct, but realistically, when you’re chasing teams as talented and obsessed with winning as Real and Barcelona, a long season can seem even longer. The time of relying on hope is gone, the time to start picking up wins and closing a gap which only started over the last couple of weeks comes on Saturday.