Ah, el derbi. It will be Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu on Saturday afternoon. LaLiga’s two form teams - and third versus first in the table - will put a pair of five-game winning runs on the line. In addition, this is the final test for both sides ahead of the Champions League quarterfinals next Wednesday; Madrid travel to take on Bayern Munich, while Atlético will host Leicester City.
But the Champions League can wait for a few more days. All eyes are on the Bernabéu, where vengeance is on the brain after Madrid inflicted a heavy 3-0 defeat on Atleti on Nov. 19.
Simeone asked for his thoughts on Leicester's recent upturn in form. His answer: "Real Madrid"— Dermot Corrigan (@dermotmcorrigan) April 4, 2017
Below is my conversation with Managing Madrid editor Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo), as we endeavor to know the enemy even better than we do already.
Jeremy Beren: Hello, Kiyan. What is (for now) the second and last Madrid Derby of the season is almost upon us. You excited?
Kiyan Sobhani: Nah, b. More like mortified. This is the beginning of a hellish month, designed by Satan himself. We have Atleti, Barca, and Bayern twice. By the end of April, I will either be riding off into the sunset with fireworks, or I'll be like that guy in Saw who had his major organs gutted from his body.
JB: You always have had a flair for the dramatic.
I, unfortunately, will be watching this game from home in Arizona. I'm going to guess you’ll be watching from a more interesting location.
KS: I mean...
It's so freakin' nice to be home, man. pic.twitter.com/vQw5xHQiEi— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) April 2, 2017
On a side note, I do love Arizona this time of year.
JB: So, derby week always comes with some extra-juicy stories from the Madrid media. The biggest story this time around is Real Madrid’s intent to activate Theo Hernández’ buyout clause. Before I tell you and your team to back off and find someone else, I will ask: why do you want to take him from us, and can you see a deal getting done?
KS: I'll say this about Theo, he's fantastic at what he does -- gunning forward with strength and pace, while being a sound defensive presence. He's a two-way supernatural being. Watching both him and Llorente this season with Alavés has been an absolute joy.
Let's breakdown your question a bit more:
1) Why do we want to take him from you? The back-up left-black slot is a weakness in the squad. The team typically treads water when Marcelo is unavailable (though, Danilo and Nacho have been pretty reliable there, while Coentrao, is um, how should I say this, not a footballer anymore), and Theo would act as a great understudy while transitioning into a potential future starter.
2) Can I see a deal getting done? I don't. I'm not opposed to Florentino breaking the handshake deal -- I'm unreasonably excited when drama ensues in sports -- but I don't see it happening, and it's part of the reason I never considered Theo as a viable option. But hey, who knows?
JB: I think it's only fair that if Theo goes, Atlético get Marco Asensio or Marcos Llorente in return.
KS: To be clear, any scenario where Atletico says "Ok, if you want Theo, just give us Llorente" -- this deal is, uh, not on the table.
JB: Just checking.
So Atleti are on a season-best five-game winning run. As you know, Madrid have also won five in a row. What has keyed los blancos’ winning streak?
KS: Apart from the win against Eibar to start the streak, it actually hasn't been that impressive of a run. I mean, that's not really a knock on the team, because this team doesn't need to be other-worldly good to win -- they just win anyway because they're so damn good in every position. That's bizarre, but that's the Zidane era in a nutshell. I would say Atleti's streak is much more impressive because it looks like they're peaking at just the right moment, and some of the panic that existed a month or two ago has faded. They're starting to find their feet, have clamped down defensively, and we're starting to see the old Atleti again.
Here's what I'll say about Zidane though. Though he tends to 'scrape by' and do just enough to win against the minnows, the best performances always come in the biggest games, against the biggest opponents.
JB: Madrid made nine changes in Wednesday’s win over Leganés. Atlético went with a very strong XI in Tuesday’s win over Real Sociedad. Did you agree with Zinedine Zidane's decision to rotate that extensively?
KS: Yeah, I do. I don't think the result was ever in doubt. We're talking about the deepest squad on the planet, and some of the best performances this season have come without Ronaldo, Bale and other key figures. The issues with Zidane's rotation don't lie in games like this. If you zoom out and look at the entirety of the season, Zidane tends to rotate on a pre-determined schedule which scorns the concept of 'good form'. It's an ideology that can gut rhythm, and he's yet to find the right balance of rotation and continuity.
Case-in-point: Asensio plays well every time he features; and Kovacic has been crazy good all season in big games (Atleti, Barca), but we can go an entire month without seeing either of them. Some of that depth needs to be trimmed in the off-season to keep players happy.
JB: Kind of sticking with that theme, this is something that's driven me crazy for a while. Zidane said last week that he thinks Isco will stay at the Bernabéu for years to come, but I for some reason do not believe him. What is the deal with Isco?
KS: Zidane says that about every player, and he should. I don't think Isco stays. Him and James both reside in the most stacked position in the team, and of the two, James will be more content fighting for his spot, while Isco just wants to start every game -- and other teams will be able to offer him that better than Real Madrid.
JB: Assuming Sergio Ramos scores on Saturday, I…well, I will be very unhappy. But what will you do?
KS: I'm almost desensitized to Ramos' last-minute heroics. It would be interesting to document my facial expressions over time -- from his headers against Bayern and Atleti in 2014, to this season's clutch heroics against Barca, Depor, and Napoli. I feel jubilant every time, but the most recent one against Betis I kind of just sat there with amazement, benumbed to it all.
I'm not even entirely sure how he jumps to meet those headers without his massive balls weighing him down.
JB: Yeah, it’s really amazing. /rolls eyes into back of head
You got a scoreline prediction?