There was a time, not so long ago, when the Madrid derby was a foregone conclusion. Atletico Madrid went from 2000 to 2013 – a total of 26 matches – without beating their great rivals Real Madrid, demonstrating the balance of power that existed in the Spanish capital. Diego Simeone changed all this, though.
The Argentinean didn’t just alter the dynamic of the rivalry between Atleti and Real Madrid, but the landscape of Spanish football as a whole, sensationally leading his team to the La Liga title in 2013/14. Now, it’s Real who have won just one of their last 10 league games against Atletico.
While they might not have finished top of the pile, Atleti’s second place finish in La Liga last season was seen as another achievement for Simeone, with European champions Real Madrid finishing below them in third. But the 48-year-old now finds himself at a critical juncture of his Atletico Madrid career.
The argument could be made that Atleti enjoyed a stronger summer than any other elite side in Europe, certainly in Spain. While Real lost their manager and best player, Atletico kept hold of their best players, keeping the likes of Diego Godin, Antoine Griezmann and Jan Oblak from the grasps of interested suitors, while adding real quality in the form of Thomas Lemar, Gelson Martins, Rodri and Santiago Arias.
With this, many tipped Atleti as favourites to win the La Liga title this season. This goes against the grain of the mindset Simeone has instilled at the club over the past seven years. Atletico Madrid, even as a winning team, have been the underdogs, David fearlessly going up against Goliath. The purest manifestation of this was in the dynamic of their rivalry with Real Madrid.
But despite this favourites tag, Atletico Madrid have suffered a turgid start to the La Liga season. From six games, they have dropped points to Valencia, Celta Vigo and Eibar, falling five points off the top of the table before shock defeats for Barcelona and Real Madrid midweek allowed Atleti to close the gap back to just two points.
For all that Simeone has achieved during his time as Atletico Madrid manager he has yet to prove that he can lead a frontrunner. This season presents something of a litmus test in this regard and so far Simeone is failing it, with Atleti far from impressive over the early part of the campaign. That’s why this weekend’s Madrid derby is so significant.
In fact, this could be the most important Madrid derby of Simeone’s career. Real Madrid come into this game on the back of a chastening 3-0 defeat to Sevilla on Wednesday night, leaving them just one full day’s preparation before Saturday’s match at the Santiago Bernabeu. What’s more, injuries have hit Julen Lopetegui’s team.
Atletico Madrid’s recent record at the Santiago Bernabeu is impressive, drawing on their last two La Liga trips to the home of their fiercest rivals.
But the nature of this week’s trip will be different.
In one sense, they are the stronger side, but face the prospect of their season being on the line. A defeat could end their title hopes, adding weight to the argument that Simeone still has some way to go before he is a natural fit for a frontrunner.
Nobody can doubt the success that Simeone has enjoyed over the past seven years at Atleti. He has completely transformed the club, taking them into their new, state-of-the-art stadium as one of the best teams in Europe. But as long as he and Atletico Madrid tread water, questions will start to be raised. There is a question mark against Simeone and his players ahead of this weekend’s Madrid derby. They must come up with an answer.