El Derbi ain't what it used to be.
For almost a decade and a half, all Real Madrid seemingly had to do to secure the local bragging rights was turn up. Victories for Atleti were from a bygone age. Twenty-three matches passed and Los Blancos didn't lose one. Fourteen years without joy for Los Colchoneros. The Madrid derby was special, but it played second fiddle to El Clasico, by a country mile. Victory after victory for those on the Castellana didn't help, not for Atleti and not for the neutrals.
It seemed as though the derby hoodoo would never end for Atleti. Even when Jose Mourinho rested some of his regular first-team players and Diego Simeone’s in-form side took the lead on home soil last season, Madrid hit back to win the league clash at the Calderon 2-1. The same old story for Atleti, their fans may as well have not bothered turning up.
Simeone kept the faith. The Argentine has completely transformed the club by the Manzanares as also-rans to a side that knows that not only can it compete with Los Blancos, it can come out on top, too. Atleti have done on the last two occasions the sides have met. The hoodoo ended in the perfect fashion with a Copa del Rey final victory over their greatest rivals -- in Madrid's own backyard. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink need no longer be mentioned. Diego Costa and Miranda, the latter scoring the extra-time winner in the 2-1 success in Mourinho's last match in charge of Madrid, the new heroes.
If excuses were found from the white side of town for that defeat (Mourinho's team selection, Cristiano Ronaldo's dismissal) then Atleti made sure no more could be found when the sides met in La Liga at the Bernabeu earlier this season. Costa again found the back of the net as Atleti registered a league win and in convincing fashion. Fourteen years of hurt turned into back-to-back wins. London buses, and all that.
Now Atleti will be out to make it a hat-trick of derby wins when they visit the Bernabeu for the third straight derby clash on Wednesday in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals. Gone are the days Madrid can take it easy on derby day, Carlo Ancelotti and his men now know full well of the qualities Cholo Simeone's men possess.
Not only is it a new-and-improved derby, Atleti are the cup holders, eager to make the final for the second year running and defend their crown. They are unbeaten in the Champions League so far this season, and sit top of La Liga.
A 4-0 victory over Real Sociedad ensured a place at the summit in Spain for the first time since 1996, when they won the league and cup double. Their place coming just a day after the death of club legend Luis Aragones. Atleti hit the top for him, and now they'll be keen to enjoy derby day delight for him, too. Madrid won the Copa del Rey against neighbours Real in 1992 under the guidance of the man who guided Spain to glory at the 2008 European Championships.
That's why Wednesday’s derby cup clash is huge for Madrid. It didn't used to be. In the era of Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Lionel Messi and Ronaldo, the Copa Del Rey has grown in significance.
In truth, Madrid didn't really used to care about the competition but now do on a number of fronts. To add more silverware than Barca, to get revenge on Atleti for inflicting back-to-back defeats, and to prove they can cut it against the big teams in a season where they've struggled on that front so far.
A home defeat against Atleti in late September was only the start of Los Blancos' woes against La Liga's top-five this term. A trip to the Camp Nou a month later saw Barca win 2-1, while Madrid could only muster a 2-2 draw at Villarreal and 1-1 draw at the weekend in Bilbao. Ancelotti's men did manage to see off Juventus 2-1 in the Champions League and Real Sociedad 5-1, both at home, but Madrid still have a point to prove when it comes to going head-to-head with the big teams this season.
The two-legged cup contest will be played out differently to a normal league encounter.
Ancelotti will be looking to build a lead ahead of the second leg at the Calderon a week later but also keep a clean sheet given away goals count. Madrid only conceded their first goal of 2014 at the new San Mames on Sunday so confidence will still be high at the back. And although Madrid has lost its last two derby games, Iker Casillas, who missed both of those games, has not. Madrid's cup stopper will be back between the sticks having gone unbeaten for 15 years in derby matches. Wednesday’s hosts will hope that statistic bodes well.
Despite a red card in Bilbao, Ronaldo will be able to take his place in the starting eleven and Gareth Bale could be back in the starting eleven after training with his teammates this week. Although Casillas will replace Diego Lopez in goal, Ancelotti is not expected to ring the changes as he has done in previous rounds. The intensity of two derby cup games, a trip to Bilbao and a home match against high-flying Villarreal should mean rests for a few players, but not wholesale changes.
Whether it's a wise idea to bring Bale back into the fold, especially from a starting role, for such a high-profile game remains to be seen. Jese Rodriguez, whom Ancelotti referred to as a first-team regular this week, has plugged the gap not only sufficiently but has been one of the team's better performers in recent months. He hasn't shied away in the big games, either, scoring at the Camp Nou, in Bilbao at the weekend and in the pre-Christmas victory in Valencia. Jese is a player growing in confidence and he seemingly thrives on the big occasions.
Alvaro Arbeloa could come in to add some more defensive stability to Madrid's lineup at right-back, replacing Dani Carvajal, while Fabio Coentrao will also be considered at left-back in place of Marcelo. The intensity of these few weeks is likely to see Xabi Alonso dropped to the bench at some point, too, but Ancelotti could look to field his strongest side for the first leg to try and gain the upper hand, as with previous rounds.
Whichever eleven Los Blancos go with, patience will be required. One of Atleti's traits this season has been to soak up pressure and grab a goal when they've most needed one, as with the three points against La Real on Sunday. The Basques enjoyed plenty of possession as they looked to get on level terms, but Atleti held firm before going on to add three more goals and make it seem like a stroll in the park. Madrid will be well aware.
Big rivalry matches have usually been reserved for Barcelona. Not anymore. The Copa Del Rey matters and derby matches against Aletico matter massively again. Madrid are in for two scintillating cup derbies and Los Blancos will be hoping the "normal" order can be restored.