Weakened Los Blancos refuse to let Atleti have their day

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

The feeling was different before kick-off. Usually, Real Madrid take the favourites tag into their derby matches against Atletico. A run of 14 years without a derby defeat says rightly so, too.

This time, Los Rojiblancos were expected to end their years of hurt against their 'big brother' - meaning a 2-1 defeat hurt more than most, if not all, of their previous 24 winless matches against Los Blancos.

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Mourinho and his men travelled to the Vicente Calderon and the banks of the Manzanares river with a much-changed side with eyes on their Champions League semi-final second leg clash with Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday. It gave Atleti their best chance yet to end the hoodoo.

Not only that, but manager Diego Simeone has put together a team that has gone neck-and-neck with Los Blancos throughout this season. Victory would have moved them level on points with the side from the Bernabeu and given Atleti a great chance of not just bagging the bragging rights from one game, but actually from the season with a league finish above their neighbours at stake, too.

On paper, Atleti fans would have hoped their side, one of the best put together in years, would have stood a great chance of ending those 14 years of hurt even if Madrid had fielded their strongest side, let alone putting out what was essentially a 'B' team.

Cristiano Ronaldo didn't travel due to a thigh muscle injury, and there was no Mesut Ozil, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Ramos or Raphael Varane from the start. The only first-team regulars to start the game were Sami Khedira, Angel di Maria, Diego Lopez and, arguably, Karim Benzema.

It was the best chance since that famous 3-1 victory for Atleti, led by a brace of goals by Jimmy Flloyd Hasselbaink, in 1999, to beat their fierce rivals.

There were flares before kick-off, singing, and a sense that, finally, Atleti would get some derby bragging rights. A few bright yellow Dortmund scarves were thrown in there for good measure, too.

While Blancos fans would have used fielding a weakened side as an excuse for defeat, that mattered little for Atleti fans, who were just desperate to see their men beat their neighbours - some for the very first time. There was an air of expectancy as a full house of almost 55,000 gathered in the bars, squares and parks around the famous old stadium.

As it turned out, the failure for one of Atleti's best teams, led by its best manager for years, to see off 'Madrid B', hit harder than most of the previous failures. The build-up was big, and the fall was bigger.

Home fans clad in red and white gathered around the players' entrance to give Falcao and his team-mates a hero’s welcome, and reserved a hot reception for Mourinho and his men. A red and white mosaic was unveiled by the home fans on three sides of the stadium as the teams came out, celebrating the club's 110th anniversary.

It all looked to be going to plan for Atleti four minutes in when Falcao - El Tigre - headed the hosts ahead. Lopez failed to hold on to a Gabi free-kick and Diego Godin guided a cross to the back post for the Columbian to send an already upbeat Colchoneros crowd into hysterics.

Instead of rallying Atleti, however, the opposite happened. Perhaps nerves started to kick in, perhaps, as some home fans would suggest, the Gods intervened. An Atleti win on derby day? You must be joking.

Far from Los Blancos playing their way back into the game, Atleti's tempo dipped, passes went astray and, despite such a perfect start, Simeone's men looked nervous on their lead.

Los Blancos were not a threat in attack. With Pepe playing in midfield alongside Khedira those long, pin-point balls from Alonso were not there to trouble an Atleti defence that had conceded just eight goals at home in the league all season going into the game.

In the end, Benzema and di Maria provided the magic to give Madrid the three points but the pair took their time in getting up to speed. Kaka was in determined mood but he struggled to create, as did Alvaro Morata as the visitors' attack looked pretty toothless.

It was perhaps typical of El Derbi, then, that Los Blancos got on level terms with a somewhat fortunate goal out of nothing, in their first real penetrating attacking of the match. Di Maria swung in a free-kick and Juanfran put the ball beyond his own goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois.

Maybe the manner of that equaliser made Atleti, fans and players, believe that things were conspiring against them, again, on their big day. They struggled to recover from that and Mourinho's men, although far from tearing Atleti apart, built on their goal.

Still, if anyone was going to win it in the second half it looked like it was going to be Atleti. Gabi had a great chance to restore their lead when he was put in on goal by Diego Costa but he shot wide.

The game was scrappy, probably something not helped (or helped, perhaps, if you're a Blanco) by Pepe's presence in the middle of the park. It stopped Atleti from building up any kind of firm, relentless pressure on Lopez's goal.

As with Madrid's first goal, the second game out of the blue, too. A long ball fell into the path of Benzema, who sent di Maria, Madrid's man of the match, away and he tucked home what turned out to be the winner.

Atleti fans grew restless, with a sense of 'here we go again' overcoming the Calderon. It worked in Madrid's favour, with Los Blancos seeing out the game pretty comfortably.

Mourinho brought on Alonso just to make sure, adding another man in midfield and moving Pepe slightly further back to protect the defence. Varane came on in place of an impressive-looking Michael Essien at right-back. Madrid fans will be hoping that was a tactical decision rather than an injury.

The day, for Atleti fans, promised to be so different. As it turned out it was just more of the same. Derby day in the Spanish capital and a win for Real Madrid. At least Los Colchoneros have the Copa del Rey final to look forward to. They'll face a stronger Real Madrid, no doubt, but they'll be eager for revenge.

Now attentions for Mourinho turn to Dortmund and mission, almost, impossible. Assistant boss Aitor Karanka said before El Derbi that "the best preparation for Tuesday is winning tomorrow", and it was job done.

If Mourinho does leave the Bernabeu this summer, he will leave with eight wins from as many derby matches - quite a record. While Madrid's focus was firmly on Tuesday's Champions League match, something reflected in the line-up on Saturday night, Mourinho would not have wanted to be the man who let Real's hold on the derby bragging rights come to an end.

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