How will Atlético Madrid play?
Atlético steamrolled into December’s meeting with Real Madrid off the back of seven successive wins. Diego Simeone had recently swapped the traditional 4-4-2 for a fresh, modified 3-5-2 — and by Atleti’s standards, the team was playing champagne football entering the Dec. 12 clash at Valdebebas. But an ascendant Madrid, fresh off beating Sevilla and Borussia Mönchengladbach, dumped ice-cold water on the visitors in a 2-0 win that was more comfortable than the scoreline indicated.
That loss served to extend Atlético’s run without winning el Derbi Madrileño to five calendar years. Atleti haven’t claimed victory a home league derby in over six years. Simeone admitted he got it wrong in December, when he surprisingly selected Héctor Herrera in midfield and the team played defensively — even aimlessly. Luis Suárez has spoken of the team’s desire to correct the mistakes made in that game and exact revenge.
If los rojiblancos are to show why they are top of the league, then they will have to do so through holding possession and challenging — really challenging — a Madrid defense that remains without Sergio Ramos and Dani Carvajal. Portu’s goal for Real Sociedad on Monday (an absolute peach, if you haven’t seen it) was the first time los blancos’ defense had been breached since Feb. 6.
Yannick Carrasco and Kieran Trippier should take up their respective wingback positions from the opening kick. Trippier and Marcos Llorente should seek to re-establish their freakishly-good connection down the right, the latter targeting Ferland Mendy on powerful gallops toward the penalty area. Of course, with Koke knitting moves together as the midfield anchor and more players closer to the box, chances will come for Suárez — who wisely avoided picking up a yellow card last weekend, thus avoiding a suspension. The Uruguayan hasn’t scored since Feb. 8, and has seen Lionel Messi overtake him in the Pichichi race. He’s also known to enjoy a goal or two against Madrid.
Atlético need to create these chances for Suárez and others through sustained possession spells. Though this Real Madrid side has had goalscoring troubles relative to past seasons and are sweating it out on Karim Benzema’s availability, holding 30 percent possession and clinging to Jan Oblak’s heroics will not cut it this time. Atleti have to go for it.
Should João Félix start?
Reports from Atlético training sessions have said that Simeone is planning to drop Félix to the bench on Sunday and start either Llorente or Ángel Correa next to Suárez. Félix ended his month-long scoring drought against Villarreal last weekend, capping his well-struck 69th-minute goal with a finger to the lips — a gesture that produced bad-faith debate and senseless pearl-clutching.
Félix joined Atlético 20 months ago and hasn’t yet demonstrated the consistency that corresponds with a €126 million transfer fee. That fee isn’t his fault, obviously. The 21-year-old is undeniably talented and has been otherworldly at times this year — he won LaLiga’s player of the month award in November. However, he hasn’t built off his early-season efforts, and he stomped off after an hour in the December derby, less than two weeks after running circles around Bayern Munich. He has shown a tendency to switch off and float through games, particularly when Atlético are defending and he doesn’t have the ball at his feet. And the fact is, the team is better when João comes off the bench — Atleti have won eight and drawn one when he’s been named as a substitute in LaLiga.
That said, the kid showed a kind of rage against Villarreal, an anger that led to a strong 45 minutes in relief of Thomas Lemar (whose status for this game is up in the air). We’ll see if he feeds off that goal and the motivation continues to burn through his fourth derby, which he ultimately may start as an observer.
Who will win the aerial game?
Real Madrid’s 11 headed goals are the most in LaLiga. Raphaël Varane and Casemiro are two elite headers of a ball, meaning they will need to be watched on set pieces. Further worth noting — Casemiro opened the scoring in December and scored an overhead kick in this fixture two years ago.
Felipe Monteiro and Stefan Savić are quite strong in the air themselves, though, while Atlético (53.6 percent) and Real Madrid (53.9) are neck-and-neck in percentage of overall aerial duels claimed. Given Toni Kroos’ dead-ball delivery expertise, those two are going to have to be at their very best to nullify a potential advantage for Zinedine Zidane’s crew.