In less than 48 hours, Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid will meet again in the Champions League - this time in the semifinal stage. It’s the fourth straight season in which el derbi will be contested in European competition, and of course, Atlético were eliminated on the previous three occasions.
Despite the shortcomings of 2014, 2015 and 2016, Atleti took something from each of those defeats and have continued to grow and compete with Europe’s best. It’s all led to this: another showdown with the tormentors, the reigning European and world champions.
Let’s hop in the time machine and look back at the 2014 Champions League final, the 2015 quarterfinal and the 2016 final to see how Atleti improved in the wake of each traumatic defeat.
2014: A violent reputation has its limitations (Real Madrid 4-1 Atlético Madrid a.e.t.)
When Atlético first ascended the ladder of Europe’s elite, it was with pure grit and undying intensity. The 2013-14 side, often derided as “los violentos,” remains the best of the Diego Simeone Era; what it may have lacked in talent - not to say that team wasn’t talented - it more than made up for in peerless determination and chemistry. These factors led to a shocking league crown and placed Atleti on the precipice of a legendary double. But...Sergio Ramos happened, followed by extra time and Cristiano Ronaldo’s chest.
For 92 minutes and 47 seconds, Atlético played with pride and valor, doing its best to overcome the losses of Arda Turan (who was injured at Camp Nou the week before) and Diego Costa (who never should have started the final). Carlo Ancelotti’s experience and smart substitutions turned the match in Madrid’s favor, as Atleti ran out of gas trying to keep up with Isco, Marcelo and Ángel di Maria. In the second half and extra time, Madrid outshot Atleti 18-6, put up four goals from 10 shots on target and rang up 63 percent possession.
However, referee Björn Kuipers also played an important role for Madrid. The Dutchman handed out seven yellow cards to Atlético players - six after halftime, and none for los blancos in the second half. The mattress makers had, fairly or unfairly, developed a reputation for aggressive, physical play, and that rep blew up in their faces against a team that had gone 12 years without a European Cup.
Thus, Simeone learned the hard way that Atleti needed to bend but not break in games of this magnitude; otherwise, the consequences would be severe and the “los violentos” moniker would forever stick.
2015: Respect the opponent...but not too much (Atlético Madrid 0-1 Real Madrid)
Less than a year later, Atlético got another chance, this time over two legs. The previous six derbies in 2014-15 mostly went Atleti’s way: four wins and two draws, including a two-legged Supercopa win, a two-legged triumph in the Copa del Rey last 16 and a 4-0 pasting at the Vicente Calderón in February. Simeone’s men still played with an edge - Mario Mandžukić stepped in for Costa in this respect - but the presence of Antoine Griezmann and continued progression of Koke and Saúl Ñíguez signaled a transition into a more technical Atleti.
But Simeone and Atleti were too bogged down by the moment in this quarterfinal. Real Madrid would have taken an away goal back to the Santiago Bernabéu if it weren’t for Jan Oblak’s first leg heroics, especially his point-blank stop of Gareth Bale inside five minutes. The tie was neatly poised entering the second leg, but Madrid dominated from the first kick in spite of an XI put together with Silly Putty (Ramos was in midfield and Fabio Coentrão and Javier Hernández started). Turan’s 75th-minute red card sealed his fate as well as Atleti’s and Chicharito’s goal 13 minutes later came as no surprise. Los colchoneros were left to rue a lack of ambition and a conservative game plan.
2016: Go for the throat (Real Madrid 1-1 Atlético Madrid a.e.t., 5-3 pens)
So by the time Atlético and Real Madrid got together at San Siro last May, Atlético’s defense was better than ever and Simeone could choose from a full, fit, varied team. Griezmann had become a superstar. Yannick Carrasco had been added to provide width and explosiveness. Left back was no longer a sinkhole after Filipe Luís’ return. Fernando Torres had been more than competent playing next to Griezmann.
However, similar to the 2015 quarterfinal, the lights shone a tad too bright for Atlético at the start of this final. A wretched, nervous start - precipitated by Zinedine Zidane’s decision to let Atleti have the ball - culminated in an offside goal for Ramos (although it was last touched by Bale, which UEFA refuses to acknowledge for some reason). After half an hour, Atleti got in the game with some nice attacking moves...but Griezmann hammered a gift penalty off the crossbar. Even after Carrasco’s 79th minute equalizer and an extra time session against a tired, out-of-subs Madrid, los colchoneros never truly went for the jugular - and predictably paid for it in the penalty shootout. Atleti finished with 54 percent possession, 18 shots, fewer fouls, only two yellow cards...and no European Cup.
If Atlético are to end the European derbi jinx, it must remember each of these defeats and take heed of the lessons Real Madrid dished out in each instance. The mattress makers are being offered a fourth chance - the second over two legs - to end this hoodoo, and they must avoid the missteps and errors that characterized the past three European dates with los blancos. There’s no question Atleti have changed over the past three seasons - even since last season - but now is the time to show Europe that the years of schooling have paid off.