Diego Simeone has said it loud and said it often: “We are the people’s team.” On some level, he needs to keep saying it to make his players believe, to make them keep sacrificing, to further engrain that identity even though the million-dollar signings keep arriving.
Simeone knows you don’t take down an institution like Real Madrid by simply signing expensive players and increasing the wage bill. There is no single swing of the axe that can knock them off their perch. You do it with 1,000 little cuts. He has been chiseling away at Madrid’s dominance since arriving on Atlético Madrid‘s bench in 2011 — and he knows they can’t stop now at a time when they seem so close to dining permanently at the table of their eternal rivals and the rest of the company they keep.
Simeone doesn’t, however, have a monopoly on hard work, as Zinedine Zidane pointed out in his press conference before Saturday night’s game.
“People get up early and work hard here too,” he said. “It is the same for all people.”
It’s a characteristic he needs to reestablish in his players as the negligent attitude towards tracking back that tends to accompany three Champions Leagues in a row crept into their play and hurt them on more than a couple of occasions in recent months.
“Hazard and Bale helped us defensively,” Ramos said after Madrid’s 0-1 win over Sevilla last weekend.
It was no coincidence that it was their best performance of the season, either. And Cholo Simeone wanted to put that new-found effort and defensive resiliency to the test. Accumulating points is one thing for Madrid at the moment, but defending well and keeping clean sheets is more important.
Álvaro Morata helped Simeone pick his team by getting sent off on Wednesday night in a moment of madness that saw him get two yellows in a minute, thus ruling himself out of the derby. Vitolo was selected as the man to play on the left with Ángel Correa and Thomas Lemar both left on the bench. Zidane picked Fede Valverde as his wildcard, leaving James on the bench and Luka Modrić too, who is just returning from injury.
Ferland Mendy was out injured along with Marcelo. Nacho, better known for his more central appearances, deputised at left-back with Eden Hazard in front of him. Despite early concerns of the Belgian’s form since arriving at the club, he still showed off on several occasions in the first half that while his form might have deserted him, his class hasn’t even if it did seem to diminish as the game wore on. As defensive cover, he could do with some improvement, though.
The first scare Atlético gave the visitors came when Diego Costa chested a high pass down and popped it forward to João Félix, who had burst behind Real Madrid’s defenders. He blazed wide without ever troubling Thibaut Courtois.
Nacho picked up a booking in the 30th minute to compound the problems los blancos were already having on that side of the field. Soon after, Kieran Trippier released Partey down the right and he blazed a lethal cross through the six-yard box.
The most dangerous chance of the half for either side came when Trippier got on the end of a looped ball over Nacho. He blazed across goal again, but there was nobody on the end of it and Real Madrid cleared again. The chances were there for Atlético — and while they never truly had the visitors on the ropes, they had them retreating.
That wasn’t the same in the second half. The visitors had their tails up and had chance after chance to make the breakthrough. Karim Benzema had the best of those, as he headed down and into the corner only to see Jan Oblak splay himself across the line and save. Saúl came closest from a corner for Atlético as he both glanced and looped a header simultaneously at the front post just wide at the back one.
In the end, it was hard work. But more for the fans than anyone else as they had to endure a game between two teams who were more afraid to lose than they were concerned with going and winning the game. However, in a season with Barcelona not looking their sharpest — and with no true favourite so far in the league — maybe this will look like a point earned rather than two lost at the business end of the year and keeping pace for now is the smart move.
At this juncture of the season, with just seven games played, there are more questions than answers with both of these squads. Where does Félix fit? Are Atlético an attacking side now? Where is the fire-breathing Costa we once knew and is he ever coming back? How many more favours does Saúl owe Simeone?
None of these questions were answered Saturday night and only made the demand for them to be answered all the more pressing. There were more fans left scratching their heads than singing as they disappeared into the Madrid night. It’s something that is becoming a more regular occurrence for both capital clubs this season.