|Diego Simeone plotting Real's downfall|
It's a scenario few would have envisaged at the start of the season. The Madrid derby has always been a massive fixture. A win will see Atlético move 11 points clear of Real. But in the thirteen years since they last beat their uptown neighbours, it's had a certain air of inevitability about it too; and its this trend they'll be looking to buck.
Thirteen years seems like an eternity to the colchoneros' long-frustrated supporters, and a glance at the principal actors that day only emphasises this. With both clubs struggling, John Toshack stood in the home dug-out at the Bernabéu with Claudio Ranieri his opposite number. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was the hero, netting twice in a 3-1 win. But despite the Dutchman hitting 23 league goals that season, Atlético suffered the humiliation of relegation. Real went on to win the Champions League.
That underlines the gulf between the galaxies which these great rivals inhabit. The inherent instability and chronic mismanagement that is synonymous with the red and whites can be also be illustrated by the fact that, while, Manchester United have had one manager in the last 26 years Atlético have had over 50 — including those returning only to be booted out again.
That might seem a harsh standard to measure against in a week where, following Mauricio Pochettino's departure from Espanyol, José Mourinho became the league's longest serving incumbent. But it's a fair picture of the situation under two successive generations of the Gil family.
The current Gil at the club, Ángel Miguel Gil-Marin, son of the infamous Jésus, isn't even on speaking terms with the president Enrique Cerezo. When it became clear 11 months ago that then coach Gregorio Manzano had to go, the indecision in giving him the marching order typified this institutional dysfuction. Neither could agree on a successor, so a compromise candidate was chosen. By accident rather than design, in came Diego Simeone.
In some ways it was an obvious choice for that craven pair. A club legend, having won the league and cup double in his playing days at the Vicente Calderon, his appointment muted supporter discontent. But many questioned his coaching credentials.
These doubts were amplified by the fact that he'd never stuck around long enough in any post. He won the title with Estudiantes and River Plate in his native Argentina. But he also left the latter bottom of the table, essentially initiating the run that led to their first-ever relegation.
He flopped at San Lorenzo, but managed to keep Catania up in Serie A. He quit that post citing a desire to return to Buenos Aires, where he was installed at Racing Club. A back to basics approach led the Avellaneda side to within a whisker of the title, founded upon a miserly defence which broke the previous record for fewest goals conceded. They were only denied by a grim Boca side who conceded even fewer — just six to Racing's eight over the 19 game tournament.
But this safety-first style split critical opinion, with many doubting whether there was more to Simeone's repertoire. He relied heavily on the creative genius of Giovani Moreno and the maverick Téo Gutiérrez to make good upon an ultra-defensive approach. This minimalist manour of instilling discipline was the mark of his initial days in his current post.
But there's been more, much more. Over the course of his tenure, the style has evolved. If Atlético defend as a team, they also attack as a team in a manner that brings to mind Helenio Herrera's Inter sides. In the transition, they always seem to have options moving forward while invariably having cover against quick breaks. This stylistic shift could be seen last spring when only a moment of genius from Lionel Messi condemned them against Barcelona.
Then there are the records. When Atlético won the Europa League in 2010, they only won three games. In the course of winning that trophy last season under Simeone through to this season's progression to the knockout phase, they've set a new record for consecutive games won in European competition. And in that time, they've enjoyed their best ever start to a La Liga season. Barcelona, three points ahead, would break the all-time record with a win over Bilbao this weekend.
By any numerical measures, el Cholo has been an outstanding success. But whereas the numbers didn't add up for some — and indeed were used as a stick to beat him with — at Racing, it's in those unquantifiable areas where Simeone has really excelled. The summer transfer window left Atlético with a weaker squad than last season given that the club couldn't retain playmaker Diego nor Eduardo Salvio. They've taken that blow in their stride, moving the excellent Arda Turan into a more central role where the Turk has prospered.
All of this is good and well. Real have failed to match the incredible intensity they showed last season when they broke all records in halting Pep Guardiola's Barcelona from equalling the original dream team's run of four straight titles under Johan Cruyff. The criticism of their struggles this season, typified in a Marca polemic this week entitled 'The 11 excuses of José Mourinho', illustrates the level of expectation placed upon the meringues. But the fact that they remain odds on favourites for this derby offers a reminder that an Atlético win would be a serious upset.
This is fair. Despite their travails at home, Real have progressed from a fiendishly difficult Champions League group with reasonable comfort. On paper, there is a huge discrepancy in talent available. Whereas Mourinho is amongst the most exalted coaches in the game, Simeone professed his admiration of the Portuguese in Friday's press conference. What on the surface could be construed as mind-games is also a simple admission of fact.
It's said that form goes out the window on derby day. This is often tosh, demonstrably so too, but a certain mental edge, borne of history, bears down upon this clash. Regardless of form or fitness Atleti have repeatedly frozen on this occasion. Even when they haven't, they've come unstuck. Last season a super-human Cristiano Ronaldo display distorted the reality of Real's 4-1 win, just as in February 2005 a display of sheer fecklesness in front of goal eerily presaged the hollowed-out shell that Fernando Torres would one day become.
But there's a difference this time too. Should the inevitable occur, Atleti will still be five points ahead of Real, far ahead of where they expected to be and with few rebukes. For Real, the stakes remain impossibly high — anything less than a victory will deliver a knockout blow to their title hopes — and see the sharpening of critics' pens all over the city.
Original article here on EIRCOM SportsHub