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Atleti Hold Their Own at the Bernabeu

Playing Real Madrid is tough for any team, even more so when they’re the local rivals, especially when they’ve inflicted more heartache to your team in recent years than any other, but on Saturday, Atleti showed their prowess in big matches once again.

Real Madrid CF v Club Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Had their been more significance on this edition of the Madrid derbi, namely an Atlético Madrid title challenge to speak of, the pressure for this match would have been unbearable. However, because Atleti were out of the title race long ago, the goal was to secure a Champions League spot, and, if possible, derail Real’s La Liga title hopes.

The first half of the derbi was very much playing into Atlético’s hands, with Real having possession, occasionally making chances, but Atleti had a couple of their own, and hung in the match and saw out a 0-0 to halftime. For Real, their treasured BBC only seemed prepared to turn up for the first half, as after the interval all three attackers for the other Madrid club were relatively quiet, and Bale was subbed off. The BBC registered four shots on target in the first half, and only one, just after the break.

Without question, the standout moment of the first half was on 31’ Stefan Savic, a much-reviled player this season, came up with a jaw-dropping goal line clearance from Cristiano Ronaldo. If Savic had not been in that position, it was a certain goal, and one that would have changed the match dramatically.

As Atleti have played themselves into form this season, it has been hard to predict how the team will play each week, with different aspects of the team being used each week, a lot having to do with the injuries and suspensions that Atleti have faced this campaign. This match was an example of a defensively focused Atleti, and rightly so, given the attacking players that Real possesses, making the side tough to breakdown was the best course of action for Atleti in this match.

However, directly following halftime, Atleti looked sluggish, and relinquished control of the match to Real for a 10-15 minute block of time. And because of this, a defensive lapse from Juanfran allowed Pepe to lose his marker and get in between Juanfran and Savic to score a header on 51’. Atleti then got back into the game, making a couple good chances to score, and had to push forward more, having gone a goal down.

On 59’ was when things started to shift in the right direction for Atleti, as Saúl unleashed a speculative shot from a great distance which was held from Keylor Navas, but shortly after, Saúl was replaced by the only Atleti attacker on the bench to play substantive minutes came on, Ángel Correa. Another player yet to really blossom this year, a lot of pressure was on Correa to make an impact, which he certainly can. For some time it has been evident that Correa is extremely talented at dribbling as well as popping up in good situations, but the problem has often been composure and making the right or simple decision at a crucial moment.

Much like Savic, Correa had his opportunity to influence the match, on 85’ and did the right thing. Upon receiving the ball, Ángel found himself in the traditional “number 10” area of the pitch, too far out to shoot, but he made a short, space opening run, which allowed Antoine Griezmann to peel off from Nacho Fernandez, as the ball was fed straight on to Griezmann’s left boot from Correa, which Grizi slid beyond Navas with ease.

It is entirely coincidence, but the fact that had Atleti not equalized when they did, the next substitute would have been Alessio Cerci, who had finished his warm-up, and was suited and ready to go, had Antoine not spoiled his day. That Cerci was even in the squad shows how light Atleti are in terms of squad depth. It is a shame for Kevin Gameiro, who could have made a huge second half impact had he been available, and Atleti’s substitutions may have happened a bit sooner, if Gameiro had been there.

Atlético’s equalizer was a backbreaker for Real, who tried several late match pushes, but without any success, as their attack had lost communication with each other, and looked disjointed. Had Málaga not remembered how to play football in time for Barcelona, that Griezmann goal could have had huge ramifications as far as the title was concerned.

Both goalkeepers had a big influence in this match, as Oblak was again magnificent, the most notable of his saves coming against Cristiano Ronaldo early on, down and low to his right. Navas’ best save comes from a play blown dead for offside, as Griezmann executed a fantastic bicycle kick was saved. The wonderful behind the goal camera captured a great deal of swerve on Antoine’s bicycle kick, and what a goal it would have been.

Without much to gain or lose from this match save bragging rights, Atleti continue on their unbeaten run, despite dropping their first points since the beginning of March. With Leicester in the Champions League midweek, that is now the focus for the rest of the season, and the only opportunity to see Atleti’s rojiblanco ribbons adorning a trophy come the end of the season.