Atletico missed a golden opportunity to overtake their city rivals, as Cristiano Ronaldo’s late equalizer earned Madrid a vital point at the Vicente Calderon.
The one major change in Atletico’s XI was the inclusion of Raul Garcia behind Diego Costa. Koke and Arda Turan were fielded on the flanks, while Gabi and Mario Suarez sat in the double-pivot.
Carlo Ancelotti made no changes to the side that blitzed Schalke in midweek.
Atletico dominated majority of the match subsequent to Karim Benzema’s early opener, but woeful finishing, and Simeone’s reluctance to turn to his bench allowed Madrid to dominate the latter stages of the derby.
Real Madrid’s great start
One of the worries many Madrid fans endured at the start of the season was the lack of depth upfront. With Gonzalo Higuain sold to Napoli, Karim Benzema was the sole senior option upfront, and his lackadaisical demeanour, along with his tendency to squander legitimate goal-scoring opportunities, left many skeptical regarding Ancelotti neglecting to find a replacement for Higuain.
Benzema, however, has improved over the last few weeks, and was Madrid’s most proactive attacker. Likewise, the French striker confidently guided Angel Di Maria’s cross from the right flank past Thibaut Courtois from point-blank range. The early goal was exactly what Ancelotti wanted – yet surprisingly it led to Atletico’s dominance.
The key to Atletico’s dominance was their approach without the ball. The first significant feat was the role of Raul Garcia. Garcia worked hard to press Xabi Alonso, forcing him to play sideways passes in his third, opposed to the long diagonal’s he prefers to make. Garcia’s inclusion was logical, and the midfielder successfully completed his required task.
Secondly, Atletico maintained a narrow shape in midfield when Madrid tried to play out of the back – they simply couldn’t play passes through midfield or to their two best players. On the contrary, this was down to the great work of Atletico’s wide players. Koke and Turan quickly closed down Luka Modric and Di Maria, when the fullbacks pushed towards Gareth Bale and Ronaldo. Yet, there were times when Koke and Turan dropped deeper and prevented the Madrid wide players from receiving the ball.
Ronaldo and Bale were peripheral figures for large portions of the match. Both players drifted infield, but Alvaro Arbeloa was likely to break forward, while Fabio Coentrao was wary of being exposed, despite his involvement in the buildup to Benzema’s opener.
Equally, the Atletico wide men were pivotal in Atletico’s attack, as they tucked in to ensure Simeone’s men dominated midfield. Modric was unable to impose his authority on the match, and the Argentine’s threat in midfield was negated, apart from Di Maria’s long diagonal ball to Benzema that forced a Courtois save.
Atletico’s overall approach without the ball was exceptional – Garcia limited Alonso’s impact, the wide players aided the fullbacks in nullifying Bale and Ronaldo, while as a whole they ensured there was no link between midfield and attack in a scrappy match, which on their standards was beneficial.
In general, the match suited Costa, as once again he was involved in all the controversy. Surprisingly, the Spanish international was Atletico’s key man, but he can also be held responsible for their inability to secure maximum points.
It took 10 minutes for Costa to make a statement, as he played a pass to Turan and made a run into the left channel, where Sergio Ramos committed a clumsy tackle on the Spanish international, which should’ve resulted in a foul. The Atletico striker’s runs into the channels, and willingness to find space in the final third tormented Madrid’s centre backs.
Nonetheless, he was effective when he dropped deeper and dragged Pepe and Alonso out of position, then charged into space – although, he was usually fouled when doing so. Costa was the games most dangerous player, but his wastefulness in front of goal kept Madrid in the match.
For the most part, world-class strikers always finish 1v1 situations with the goalkeeper, and here he struggled to complete that job. A shot from the right side of the box ricocheted off the side netting, and a failed chip attempt minutes before Gabi’s thunderous goal, summed up Costa’s first half.
However, his best opportunities were spurned in the second half. He cleverly hit a free kick at the edge of the box under the wall but it fell straight into Diego Lopez’s arms. Afterwards, Garcia played him in free on goal, but Pepe’s presence forced Costa to force his shot wide of the net. While that was his best opportunity to double Atletico’s lead, Costa’s header from a corner kick went inches wide.
It’s not often that your most proactive player equally leads to your downfall, but on this occasion, Costa played this role to a tee.
With the match drifting away from Madrid, Ancelotti’s substitutions enabled his side to dominate the latter stages of the match. Here, the Italian was wise with the timing and personnel selection, while Simeone’s reluctance to turn to his bench saw his side’s energy levels dramatically decrease.
Although the decision to introduce Marcelo and Dani Carvajal was peculiar, it enabled his side to peg Atletico into their own half – although, fitness levels also played a factor. Unlike Coentrao and Arbeloa, the duo bombarded forward and created chances. Carvajal created two chances for Ronaldo – which ultimately led to his equalizer – and Marcelo’s ball to Modric saw the Croatian sky his shot inches over the bar.
Isco, on the other hand, provided the energy that Di Maria lacked in the second half. He provided a link between midfield and attack, and intelligently found pockets of space in the final third to circulate the ball. The two fullbacks provided more thrust in the final third, whereas Isco was the link that Madrid desperately lacked in the first-half.
Simeone made one substitution by introducing Christian Rodriguez for Turan, but at that point, Atletico were already teetering. Atletico required energy and pace in wide areas – as their pressing decreased – and Simeone’s lack of options, along with his reluctance to make a change gave Madrid the upper hand in the second half.
Atletico dominated majority of the match, but Costa’s wastefulness in front of goal, and Ancelotti’s substitutions merited a draw.
While Atletico lost two points, they now possess the tiebreaker, if the duo were to possibly finish the season level on points. Simeone’s initial game plan was logical and successful, but his inability to identify that substitutions were required led to his downfall.
This may be one of Madrid’s worst performances since the turn of the year, and while their trip to Europe may have played a part, they were outmatched in midfield for large portions of the match. While their lead at the top is now trimmed to a sole point, Ancelotti’s ability to obtain a point when his side was thoroughly outplayed could prove beneficial in May.