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    R Sociedad


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    Real Madrid





Santiago Bernabeu, Spain

Attendance: 83000

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Real Madrid

  • Cristiano Ronaldo 16'
  • Mesut Özil 66'

2 - 0


Atletico out to prove title credentials

Dermot Corrigan
Falcao has been a key player this season

It is fair to say this has not been one of Jose Mourinho's better weeks as Real Madrid coach. First Saturday night's 1-0 loss at Real Betis and Barcelona's subsequent 4-0 win at Levante opened up an eleven point gulf between the teams in the Primera Division table.

This sparked a typically over the top response from the Madrid-based media, with many pundits suggesting Mourinho stop pointing fingers elsewhere (erring referees, his own underperforming players, unsupportive club directors, La Liga's biased scheduling) and take a long hard look at himself. Then fans inside the Bernabeu traded cheers, jeers and whistles as they publicly aired their contrasting views of the Portuguese coach during Tuesday's uninspiring 3-0 Copa del Rey win over third tier Alcoyano.

In recent years a home derby against Atletico Madrid at the Bernabeu has been just the tonic for Madrid bosses needing a boost - with the Colchoneros famously without a win in the fixture this century - but Diego Simeone's new hard-edged Atletico side look much less likely to collapse embarrassingly.

With 17 wins from 20 games in all competitions, this season has seen phenomenal form and puts them a barely believably eight points ahead of their city rivals at this still relatively early stage of the season. Simeone's well-drilled, super fit and supremely disciplined Atleti side have shown a very uncharacteristic consistency this season, and at this stage deserve to be taken seriously as title contenders.

The differing moods in the two camps have made the game harder to predict than usual. The week has seen a typically hyped build up in the local press, but with the novelty of Atletico-leaning pundits allowing themselves to show glimpses of a new cautiously optimistic side, and Madrid's cheerleaders making very sure to give a significant amount of respect to rivals from the other side of town.

The players joined in the role-reversal. On Monday night, Atletico striker Radamel Falcao gave Spanish radio his own version of the formbook going out the window in derbies (in Colombia it involves a rucksack), while stressing even a draw would be a disappointment to him. Two days later Madrid goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas admitted to reporters that the season was not going to plan for his team, adding that Atletico must be respected and that the game was going to be very difficult to win.

Even with all this, the feeling remains that Madrid should still have too much quality for their rivals and the bookies agree. If Mourinho is right and Los Blancos' real problem is not their coach but a certain resting on laurels after last season's title win, then a chance to put down uppity neighbours looks ideal for Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil, Karim Benzema and company to get their mojo back. It might not be as straightforward as in previous years, but Madrid's greater individual quality throughout the team, and greater need for the points, should really see them through.

But if it doesn't, stand by for the debates about Mourinho's future, within both Madrid's fanbase and the Spanish media, to go stratospheric.

Real Madrid player to watch: Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo has enjoyed his Madrid derbies - winning all seven in which he has played, and scoring five goals in the two La Liga clashes last season, including two screamers in the 4-1 win in March which went a long way to clinching the title. And the Portuguese could do with some cheering up at the moment, having scored just once in six appearances as his "sadness" drags into a fourth month. A goal on Saturday night would put a smile back on his face, temporarily at least.

Atletico player to watch: Radamel Falcao

If Atletico are to get a result at the Bernabeu, Falcao will need to shine, especially as under Simeone, Atletico's other ten players will all likely have heavy defensive duties. The Colombian missed the Bernabeu derby last season with a knock, but was back for the return game at the Vicente Calderon where he scored his side's only goal. The game is also another excellent opportunity to impress Madrid president Florentino Perez, who could just be in the market for a new galactico next summer.

Key battle: Xabi Alonso v Arda Turan

It took about six months, but Arda Turan eventually gained Diego Simeone's trust after upping his workrate, and the 'Turkish Beckham' has since become a fixture in the coach's preferred line of three behind Falcao. A major part of that trio's job on Saturday will involve shutting down Xabi Alonso, whose long raking passes from the back to spring Ronaldo, Benzema and co are key to Madrid's lethal counter-attack. Going the other way, with Diego Ribas gone, Arda is the most likely to provide a bit of genius or something unexpected to unpick the Madrid defence. The former Galatasaray man also likes to operate in an area "between the lines" where Alonso can have trouble covering, especially if Sami Khedira gets caught upfield. Whichever of Alonso or Arda can find space the time to pick their passes could go a long way towards deciding the game.

Trivia: Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas's first derby came in October 1999, when the then 18-year-old replaced Albano Bizzarri, after the Argentine was sent off for a professional foul with his side 1-3 in arrears. Casillas made some fine saves in his 39 minutes on the pitch, and was a starter when the sides drew 1-1 at the Vicente Calderon the following March. Now club captain, he has gone 23 straight derbies without tasting defeat, with 17 wins and six draws, and only 18 goals conceded. Bizzarri's Madrid career was less starred - he was transferred to Valladolid in summer 2000, but has had more success in Italy, first with Catania and now at Lazio.

Stat: Atletico have won 17 of their 20 matches so far this season, while averaging only 48% possession per game

Odds: Even with Madrid's current rocky form the bookies favour them heavily to win (1.44 with bet365). Atletico remain outsiders at 6.50, with a draw at 4.50. Optimistic Atleti fans might like the look of Falcao to score first and an away win at a lengthy 19.00.

Prediction: With Simeone in charge and Falcao on fire, it is easy to see Atletico putting up a better fight than in recent years, but still difficult to see them actually getting a result. A few scares for Mourinho, but then a Ronaldo-lead home win.

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