Relentless Real Madrid a reminder of what might have been for Atletico
Real Madrid were supposedly in a mess last summer and Atletico Madrid about to challenge for the title but each have defied expectations ahead of their meeting at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday.
With Real marching to the top of La Liga and Atletico languishing in fifth, the city derby this weekend is less a contest of rivals and more a moderately awkward assignment for the now title favourites.
A local derby can have a rhythm of its own, as shown by Espanyol in 20th holding Barcelona in first to a 2-2 draw earlier this month.
But Atletico will need a similar reversal of form, after four games without a win, in which they have lost to Eibar, drawn at home to Leganes - now themselves last in La Liga - and been knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Cultural Leonesa of Segunda B.
And as Atleti have floundered, Real have flourished, extending an unbeaten run to 20 matches, during which they have conceded only nine goals and scored 45.
In term of competitions, Real have won the Spanish Super Cup, pulled three points clear at the top of La Liga and eased into the cup quarter-finals, all without the injured Eden Hazard.
"We are top of the table again after being there a long time ago," said captain Sergio Ramos. "We have to keep going."
When Zinedine Zidane returned as coach almost a year ago, many questioned not only the timing but the wisdom of retaking charge of an ageing squad, seemingly on an unerring trajectory of decline.
Sceptics were initially proven right as results and performances failed to improve and when a disjointed transfer window fed into a 7-3 pre-season defeat to Atletico, the talk was less about winning trophies and more about Zidane losing his job.
Yet Zidane weathered the storm, his management by calm and charm recovering the players and restoring the steel that made Real Madrid such a fierce opponent when they were last crowned Spanish champions in 2017.
"Defensively what we are doing we are doing very well, it is our strength," Zidane said last weekend.
Their transformation began at the back, where Atletico once owned the reputation for the most stubborn rearguard in Europe but in recent months even that defining characteristic has left them.
- Muted displays -
In some ways, that was part of the plan, a new era centred instead on Joao Felix, where solidity in defence would give way a little to freedom of expression in attack.
Yet Felix, bought for 126 million euros, has only shown glimpses of his talent, a series of muted displays suggesting the 20-year-old was not ready to carry the weight of change on his shoulders.
"Every player has a different personality, every player needs a different amount of time," coach Diego Simeone said, when asked about Felix earlier this month.
With Felix now injured, and not expected to recover from a hamstring tear for around a month, Atletico's options are reduced, even if the youngster's four goals in 24 appearances means the team will hardly miss his scoring record.
Instead, Simeone, who largely retains the support of the fans, must find both a replacement and a spark to jolt his side back into life.
Ten points looks too wide a gap to close in the league but Atletico will need some momentum to have any chance of upsetting Liverpool next month in the Champions League last 16.
A shock victory over Real Madrid, whom they have not beaten in La Liga in four years, might be just what is needed, for Barcelona too, who now trail Real by three points after their loss last weekend away at Valencia.
Quique Setien received a welcome boost as Barca thrashed Leganes 5-0 on Thursday in the Copa del Rey and league games at home to Levante, whom they face on Saturday, Getafe and Eibar should now offer a chance to rebuild.
Sevilla, in third, are also at home to Alaves on Sunday, looking to recover themselves after losing to Segunda's Mirandes in the cup on Thursday. Getafe, in fourth, play away at Athletic Bilbao.
Fixtures (times GMT)
Villarreal v Osasuna (2000)
Granada v Espanyol(1200), Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid (1500), Mallorca v Real Valladolid (1730), Valencia v Celta Vigo (2000)
Leganes v Real Sociedad (1100), Eibar v Real Betis (1300), Athletic Bilbao v Getafe (1500), Sevilla v Alaves (1730), Barcelona v Levante (2000)
© 2020 AFP