The first time they met, Antoine Griezmann left Zinedine Zidane standing in his pants; the second time, he left Zidane’s players even more exposed, stripped bare before the Bernabéu.
Not just them, in fact: coach, players, president, club, the lot. It is a little over a decade since young Antoine, a hopeful kid at Real Sociedad, asked Zidane for his shorts after a game at Anoeta, the pair retiring to the tunnel so they could be handed over. Ten years on, Antoine, the top scorer at Atlético Madrid and responsible for more than a third of their goals, turned superbly, dashed across the turf, exchanged passes with Filipe Luís and curled in the goal that inflicted on Zidane the coach his first defeat in charge of Real Madrid.
The way it arrived was a portrait of his talent and Real’s failings, players ambling aimlessly as Griezmann ran, the entire stadium watching the pass to Filipe Luís open up as if in slow motion, while the finish and its consequences revealed their nakedness. Suddenly, it was all out there, uncovered: the errors, the divisions, the flimsiness of the facade. Blame was apportioned, fingers pointed. At the end, Real’s anthem was put on as quickly as it could be and as loudly too, barely a second between the final whistle and the deafening first bar, but the complaints could still be heard and so could chants for the president, Florentino Pérez, to resign – 10 years to the day since the last time he walked out.
Atlético won the derby, again. And Real lost the league, again. It is only February and already it is finished. For the most expensive team in history, one league title in eight seasons is virtually certain now. Every day, Marca gives away a reproduction of the paper the day Madrid won each of their league titles; every day, the nostalgia grows. If anyone is going to challenge Barcelona this season it will be Atlético, not Real. Atlético are eight points off the top; Real are 12 points away, plus head-to-head goal difference, with only 12 games left. Their fight will be for second. Or, with Villarreal just two points behind them, maybe even for fourth. And, irony of ironies, they must avoid a Champions League qualifier or risk their pre-season tour.
“Before you ask, it’s over,” Zidane admitted. Every word dripped with disappointment, a heavy hint of reproach. Real could still win the biggest trophy of all – their last seven European Cups came in seasons when they did not win the league – but this cut deep and the reasons ran deeper: it was about more than just defeat in the derby, it was about why it happened and what it meant. “Maybe next year we have to change things,” Zidane said, pausing to add: “Maybe they will change the coach.” He described the result as a “big blow” and said: “When you play Atlético you have to do more: you have to run more, put your foot in more, do more. If you don’t do more, this happens.”
A few metres away, Cristiano Ronaldo lit the fuse. “Powder keg,” ran one headline. “Madrid on fire,” cheered the Catalan daily El Mundo Deportivo. Standing there on a metal box, cameras pointed at him, Ronaldo posed questions about injuries, physical preparation, the pre-season tour, and reacted irritably to suggestions he has not played well. “The stats don’t lie,” he said. “If everyone was at my level, maybe we’d be first.” The stats reveal he has not been at his level either but most of what he said was right – just as with Rafa Benítez – but rather than listen to what he said they queued to attack him for saying it. Ronaldo’s words will not have helped; more concerning is that they probably will not be heeded.
Zidane said it had “hurt” to lose to Real’s city rivals. As a player, he never had; when he was a player the truth is Atlético had hardly been rivals. Now, with Zidane as coach, they are. With Zidane and with all of them. Diego Simeone has taken his team to the Bernabéu and beaten José Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Zidane. “We treat it as natural that we should have a chance of winning there,” he said and they are entitled to: Atlético have lost only one of the past 10 derbies. The 11th was the European Cup final, sure, but it’s still an extraordinary turnaround, not least because the derby is a reflection of something much broader than just this game.
In 2011, a banner at the Bernabéu done up like a classified advert famously appealed for “a worthy rival for a decent derby”. Everyone knows that now, just as everyone knows what happened next, and the impact Simeone has had. And yet it is worth repeating. Especially as with every derby it seems there is another layer added, another achievement.
After 14 years and 25 games without winning a derby, Atlético beat Real at the Santiago Bernabéu in the Copa del Rey final, perhaps their most historic, most emblematic victory ever. Then they won the league title, arguably the most “impossible” there has been. They lost the European Cup final, yes, and in the very last minute, but that was only the second time they had ever reached the final, four decades on, and they then took the Spanish Super Cup. Next they beat Real 1-0 at the Bernabéu and 4-0 at the Calderón, their biggest victory in 28 years, the second biggest in history. That meant they had done the double over Real for the first time in 64 years. Now, they’ve won at the Bernabéu again “and that always tastes special”, Gabi said. It is a taste they have acquired. Saturday’s win was the third in succession in the league.
No one has done that before, ever.
“Football is wonderful; that’s why things like that can happen,” Simeone said. “The only thing I asked of my players was that they play with pride. It is difficult to transmit to you what you feel on the bus on the way to the game. You can sense it, it’s palpable, but it’s not easy to explain.”
Atlético’s players had not arrived back home from Eindhoven, via Amsterdam, until almost 7am on Thursday. By 6pm on Saturday, they had won another derby and run 11km more than their opponents. Griezmann’s goal was his first for five games but it was not chance and nor was the victory. It had not always been pretty but it was impressive. Familiar too. Atlético have conceded 11 goals this season, over a third of them against Barcelona. The other 17 teams have managed to beat Jan Oblak only seven times, never more than once. The goal was not just some opportunity that fell their way, but was superbly made and taken. “We were Atlético de Madrid,” Simeone said. “I can’t say it much clearer than that.”
“Work pays,” he added.
In his words, there was a message for Real too. Unintentional, perhaps, but it was there. It may not be so much that Real’s model is flawed as that they do not have a model. Atlético do. Simeone talked about the future, about a young team who are growing, about development, about the path along which they will travel. “We have a very defined identity,” he said. “Football is a game and you can lose, but our intentions are always the same. The fans can be proud; the response of the team was tremendous again.”
When he talked about his team’s qualities, ones that actually probably play down his team’s talent, they were ones Real fans would end up talking about, conspicuous by their absence. When he talked about the structure at the club, the “project”, that feeling became even more profound: “Stability, continuity, collective effort, the team above the individual … ” As he went through his team, player by player, describing them all, each description was a superlative but a collective one. “The back four were spectacular,” he said, “Augusto and Gabi were tremendous lungs in the middle, Saúl has a great heart, Koke was so calm, Griezmann showed character, Fernando had that great ilusión and passion to chase impossible balls … ”
It was almost 7pm, time for Simeone to get up and walk out of the Bernabéu where his team had just won the derby again. He prepared to lift himself from his chair, hands paused on its arms, but there was just time to say one more thing. “We are very pleased to be Atlético,” Simeone said, smiling.
• They’ve all tried, but none have succeeded. One after the other, they got their chance, and one after the other they failed. Barcelona have gone an entire round of league games, facing everyone once, and have not been beaten. On Sunday night Sevilla were the latest to try. The last team to beat Barcelona went 1-0 up at the Camp Nou and deservedly too, but goals from Leo Messi (a belting free-kick) and Gerard Piqué gave Barça a 2-1 victory. That is 19 league games, against every team in the division, 16 wins and three draws. Add the Copa del Rey, the Champions League and the Club World Cup, and Barcelona’s unbeaten run extends to 34 games, equalling the record set by Leo Beenhakker’s Real Madrid in 1988-89. Barcelona have scored 109 goals and conceded 19 in all competitions, but that makes it sound easier than it has been. This game was familiar, another victory that did not look like a foregone conclusion, in which their opponents looked at times like they might get something, and not just a draw. Yet the closest anyone has come was Valencia, when both managers played teams of subs. Barcelona have had to compete – a quality of theirs that often gets overlooked – and even when they have not played especially well there are usually periods when they seem to pull away. “What does this run say to you?” Luis Enrique was asked. “It will say something if we win trophies,” he said.
• How can it be that Sevilla are the only team not to have won away from home? “It’s curious that they don’t win away,” Luis Enrique said. “They have the quality and every time we play them they seem better equipped to hurt us. They’re one of the teams that cause us the most problems.” They certainly did on Sunday night, but it ended like every away game has ended: without a win. So, another question: does the Copa del Rey final count as an away game?
• To, two, too. Two goals, two headers, from Rubén Castro, two from Manucho too, two early changes and a two-goal turnaround, from 2-0 down to 2-2 two weeks running against two teams from Seville, Rayo keep on keeping on, but they’re still only two points and two places off the relegation zone, despite being unbeaten in seven – equalling their best run.
• Two days after the derby, with all the blame and recriminations, with all the fallout, with Ronaldo’s words and Zidane’s words, the strategic leaks, the talk of a clean-out, the protests and the anger, with fires raging, with the league gone but the Champions League as the greatest life-raft of all still there for them to grab on to, and the best-selling sports newspaper in Madrid leads on … Borja Mayoral going to watch Parla play?!
• Roberto Soldado was on the bench and Samu Castillejo, Léo Baptistão, and Adrián López were on the pitch. They have started just 11, seven, and two league games respectively this season, but it did not matter: all three scored in a 3-0 win that means Villarreal are now unbeaten in 13. They’re just two points behind Real Madrid, with a better head-to-head goal difference. “We’d need to continue like this and for them to slop up [to finish ahead of them],” Marcelino said.
• Much like the Christians, Celta had never won at the Coliseum before. But this weekend they did: Nolito is back after two months and Nolito scored. Getafe didn’t deserve to lose but they’ve been doing that rather a lot recently.
• Want goals? And good ones? Go to the Molinón. Sporting lost 4-2 to Espanyol this weekend, and two of them were real beauties, scored by Burgui and Gerard Moreno. Since the opening day, Sporting’s home games have produced 4, 3, 2, 3, 6, 4, 3, 1, 4, 6 ,1, and 4 goals. And to think it all started with a 0-0 draw … against Real Madrid.
• The president of the league, Javier Tebas, says he “misses” a Spanish Jean-Marie Le Pen. Wonder what the league’s players and managers think of that? Zidane, for example.
Results: Eibar 0-1 Las Palmas, Real Madrid 0-1 Atlético, Getafe 0-1 Celta, Sporting 2-4 Espanyol, Betis 2-2 Rayo, Real Sociedad 1-1 Málaga, Villarreal 3-0 Levante, Valencia 0-3 Athletic, Deportivo 0-1 Granada, Barcelona 2-1 Sevilla.
|10||Deportivo La Coruna||26||1||32|
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010