Somethings never fails to surprise. Be it Liverpool having a picnic at Leeds or a scratchy Barcelona dominating Valencia in an away fixture or Dusan Vlahovic scoring a banger just 33 seconds into his UCL debut, football never fails to surprise us. Well talking about Barcelona, the dates for the next El Clasico are out. Real Madrid will host their fierce rivals on the 21st of March.
LaLiga gets a tremendous TRP boost whenever both the Spanish giants collide. The other fixture they look out for is the eternal local rivalry between Real Madrid and Atletico de Madrid, El Derbi Madrileno. In the past decade, both the Madrid sides have gone to lengths to fuel an already heated rivalry.
The 2014 and 2016 UCL finals, the Simeone incident, Ramos knocking Atletico, all of them are regulars in the Madrid Derby. So was the relationship between Atletico’s boss Diego Simeone and Madrid legend Cristiano Ronaldo. While the reason is unknown, it is evident that both the parties never get along well, as was evident in the ‘cojones’ gesture by Simeone and Ronaldo, even after the latter left Los Blancos to join Juventus.
Things started to get interesting when Cristiano knocked Atletico out of UCL in knockouts. When the UCL knockouts draw for this year was held, Atletico found themselves to be against Manchester United. While the Man Utd in itself wasn’t much of the trouble, a familiar presence in Cristiano Ronaldo surely made life tough for the Rojiblancos. Knowing that UEFA Champions League is the backyard of the legendary CR7, Atletico was in troubled waters.
Well now, all the build-up towards Simeone’s reunion with CR7 seems out of point as nothing spectacular happened between both. The sparks of ‘cojones’ were nowhere seen as both the men handled it professionally. The match was simply disappointing.
3. United’s failure to create & convert:
Cristiano Ronaldo, playing as the lone forward, let down United as he only managed two shots against Atletico. Adding to his humiliation was that both of them were ‘completely’ off the target. Jadon Sancho, Luke Shaw, and Paul Pogba looked completely out of it as United’s left flank was regularly raided. The right flank was just better by a teeny bit as Rashford seems to have forgotten the art of scoring. Fred had his moments in midfield, while Victor Lindelof was in an unfamiliar territory of Right Back. Even David de Gea, who won United’s player of the month a while ago, had a torrid time.
The only dependable units were the centre-back pair of Harry Maguire and Raphael Varane and a creative Bruno Fernandes just behind his national captain. The wingers and midfield failed to do their jobs as full-backs helplessly tried to balance out the things but ended up further complicating them. While it obviously is the team’s fault, Ronaldo will face most of the criticism as a player of his calibre is expected to turn around such situations. The Portuguese forward has added a disappointing result to his already lousy form.
2. Atletico Madrid’s clear intentions:
On the other hand, Atletico stayed true to their defensive commitments, as they only allowed seven shots on their goal, with just two being on target. While United enjoyed 63% of possession, it wasn’t until the 80th minute that they were on the scoresheet, all thanks to Anthony Elanga’s superb effort.
Playing a 3-5-2 formation, Atletico made a gamble by placing Geoffrey Kondogbia, their best defender this season, as a defensive midfielder in a 5-man midfield. The gamble paid out as Kondogbia was solid in defence, winning 10 of his 14 duels. Oblak looked scratchy, and Mandava made an unwanted error giving Bruno Fernandes a chance to equalize. What was surprising was even with 37% of possession, Atletico had managed more shots, all thanks to their midfield making the desired impact. Earlier, Joao Felix grabbed a stunner at the 7th minute following a superb assist from Renan Lodi.
Simply stating, Atletico went in the match with an intention to take the lead as soon as possible and then defend their hearts out. While the tactic isn’t inspiring, the collectiveness and focus displayed by Atletico earned plaudits. Kondogbia was the top dog as he instructed the defensive line and took up some risky challenges. If Mourinho saw this match, he would be glad to witness his ideal playstyle of scoring first and defending, popularly called ‘Park the Bus’. Beautifully executed by Simeone.
1. The Battle beyond the tactics:
Both Atletico and United came into this match in good form, winning three of their last five league matches. That was just the front of it. In reality, both the teams were struggling internally. Atletico was trashed 4-2 by a 10-man Barcelona while encountering a surprising defeat to Levante at home. Atletico’s biggest problem this season has been that their reliable and collective defence turned out rogue. While defenders are piling up their mistakes one on the other, Jan Oblak is failing to live up to his name of the best keeper right now.
On the other hand, United is suffering from scoring woes. Cristiano Ronaldo is on a goal drought from the start of 2022, netting in just a goal in the last seven matches. One of the disadvantages of housing a GOAT is that his bad form can ruin the entire team’s morale. Cristiano’s poor run has had a large impact on the other players as almost everyone is underperforming. To top that, there is general discomfort by the squad regarding Ralf Rangnick’s tactical decisions.
While the baton of the contest is passed down to Old Trafford, the winner will be the team that first works on fixing itself. To put the cat out of the bag, as of now, Man Utd and Atletico’s biggest worries are earning a spot in next year’s UCL as both teams are on the brink of losing the #4 spot one way or other. It doesn’t matter who wins the second leg as neither of the teams can compete with favourites like Real, Liverpool, City, and Bayern as they are now. But football’s selling point is unpredictability.
We have seen Cristiano win matches single-handedly before, and if fate so wishes, this bad form may be the quiet before the tempest, and a CR7 masterclass may be just around the corner.