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3 battles that could define Atlético Madrid’s derby against Real Madrid

Down the right, in the middle and across the whole pitch.

Real Madrid CF v Atletico de Madrid - Copa Del Rey Quarter Final Photo by Ruben de la Fuente Perez/NurPhoto via Getty Images

This clash of the titans at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu on Saturday evening will pit Atlético Madrid up against Real Madrid for the second time in less than a month.

Despite that, the battles which will define the result in this LaLiga meeting may not be the same. Personnel and tactical changes from that 3-1 extra-time defeat in the Copa del Rey could well give this encounter a very different complexion.

Here, we take a look at three of the key matchups.

Pablo Barrios vs Luka Modrić

Who saw this one coming? It’s the stuff dreams are made of for Pablo Barrios — and probably also for Luka Modrić, to be facing an inexperienced teenager days after an intense Champions League battle.

The composition of Atlético’s midfield is one of the great mysteries heading into this tie, with Diego Simeone even trialling Barrios and Saúl Ñíguez alongside Koke. That would be a significant change from the line-up that saw Thomas Lemar and Rodrigo de Paul, both now injured, start in the recent Copa del Rey clash.

Barrios is likely to occupy the more central role, with Saúl alternating as the interior and switching with him. That will mean Modrić’s forward drives are likely to push into the gap between the two.

Real Madrid CF v Atletico de Madrid - Copa Del Rey Quarter Final Photo by Florencia Tan Jun/Getty Images

Modrić has been in brilliant form of late, and Barrios will be keen to avoid a repeat of his last big opportunity against FC Barcelona, when he was hauled off at half-time. His energy should help him to keep up with the Croatian, but it will be a technical test on a whole new level.

This midfield duel could well decide who dominates this tie, but that alone is unlikely to be enough to win the match. Atlético will likely set up to allow Real Madrid to have the ball and to instead look to strike on the counter. That could be where Barrios comes into play, seeing as his ability to take the ball and carry it is better than Saúl has shown of late. This could see gaps open up in behind Modrić.

And if Atleti are able to exploit those gaps and get through to Eduardo Camavinga, or Aurelién Tchouaméni if he is risked, the Colchoneros will be on the front foot.

Vinícius Júnior vs Nahuel Molina

The singular battle, if you had to pick one, which could decide this match. If Vinícius Júnior excels in the derby on Saturday, it’s hard to see Atlético having much of a chance of emerging victorious, no matter what else they get right.

Vinícius comes into this game perhaps more confident than ever before. His brace at Anfield on Tuesday night was a statement performance from a player who even Diego Simeone paid tribute to in his pre-match press conference on Friday.

That adds to the boost he got from the last Derbi in the Copa del Rey quarterfinals. That late, 120th-minute goal was his first against Atlético. It didn’t have any real consequence on the outcome of the game, but it will certainly add to his belief heading into another encounter against a team he has had no shortage of clashes with.

Molina handled the Brazilian reasonably well in that meeting, but did struggle in some take-ons where he was missing midfield cover for support. That could well happen again without de Paul available. Molina’s best performances against Vinícius came for Argentina against Brazil in a system where he had that coverage and excelled.

Instead, he will have to provide the cover for Stefan Savić on Saturday. The Montenegrin was exposed by pace and trickery in the recent meeting at the Bernabéu, and it will be Molina’s responsibility to avoid that happening again.

Equally, Molina has duties offensively. Supporting Marcos Llorente and allowing him that attacking license to break forward will be essential. His ability to hit on the counter with pace could be decisive in crucial moments for Atleti. Taking advantage of Vini’s slack defending to expose Nacho behind him could be the knock-on effect of this battle.

Jesús Gil Manzano vs Atlético Madrid

Yes, we’re being petty. But with good reason.

Jesús Gil Manzano and Atlético Madrid are as close to archenemies as any team can come with a referee, and he’ll be taking charge of his first Derbi Madrileño.

“Let’s see. This referee isn’t very friendly,” Atlético legend Paulo Futre said when asked about the appointment this week. “Let’s see if he’s more focused. He shouldn’t lean towards one side or the other. We know it’s very difficult to referee Real Madrid because there’s a lot of pressure.”

In September 2021, Gil Manzano sent off João Félix for calling him “loco,and that led to incredible rants from Savić and Yannick Carrasco. Simeone himself said “Jesús is a great referee, last year we won games with him and, depending on the day, the sensitivity generates different decisions depending on how you look at it.”

Gil Manzano is also the referee who sent off Diego Costa at Camp Nou for another insult only two years before, leading to an eight-game suspension. So, Atleti players would do well to keep quiet.

Atletico Madrid v Athletic de Bilbao - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Gil Manzano’s record at the Santiago Bernabéu with Real Madrid is remarkable. In 19 LaLiga matches he’s officiated, Real Madrid have won 17 and drawn two with zero defeats. Rivals have seen three red cards and one penalty awarded, compared to just one and six for Real Madrid.

The stage is set for Gil Manzano given all the controversy surrounding this fixture, from the heated Copa del Rey battle which saw Savić sent off to the drama surrounding Vinícius on his visit to the Cívitas Metropolitano earlier in the campaign. This referee isn’t usually one to shy away from the limelight.