The recent 4-0 Liga defeat to Atletico provoked institutional crisis at the Bernabeu and this is the draw that everybody at Real Madrid wanted to avoid.
This is the draw that nobody at Real Madrid wanted. Conversely, they will be licking their lips over at Atletico. Real may be the European champion but there is one team it feared in this Champions League quarterfinal draw more than any other. Not Bayern, not Barcelona but Atletico. Real Madrid just cannot beat them.
If there is one certainty from Diego Simeone’s time at Vicente Calderon it is that he has established Atleti as the king of Madrid. It is an anomaly that Real is the best team in Europe but cannot claim to be the best team in its own city.
Atletico has played Real six times since the Champions League final last season in Lisbon and not only is the club unbeaten but has proven itself to be comprehensively better than its rival head to head. Atletico has four wins from six matches this season. The two other games finished level. Atletico has scored 12 goals in the process. Real has netted just four. Those signs do not bode well for Madrid over a two-legged knockout tie.
While the record books show a 4-1 win in last season’s final, the truth of the matter is that Atletico was about the width of a goal post from being declared European champion. Sergio Ramos’s header in injury time just beat the reach of Thibaut Courtois and Real Madrid pummeled its exhausted neighbor in extra time to lay its hands on la Decima.
If Atletico was the underdog then that particular message was lost on Simeone. His reaction to losing the final last season was one of a man who just would not and could not accept what had transpired. He fought with the opposing bench. He lunged for Raphael Varane. He had not let his team accept its billing as third-best team in Spain and sure as hell was not going to accept easily the status as runner-up in Europe either.
His Atleti team had run riot all over Europe, eliminating Barcelona and Chelsea in the process, but was unable to muster enough in the final. Diego Costa, injured in that final, has gone. So too have Courtois and Filipe Luis. Atletico may not be the force it was last season in the Primera Division but it is staying the course in the Champions League. They will have vengeance on their minds.
While fellow heavyweights Bayern and Barcelona will be relatively happy with their draw, Real will be genuinely fearful for its prospects of progressing.
“We know they are very competitive and it will be difficult,” said Real’s director of institutional relations Emilio Butragueno. “It’s an even tie and small aspects will be important. They are a very strong, cohesive team, strong from set pieces and have a great spirit.
“We have to recuperate all the injured players we have. We are the title holders and we’ll do our best to get into the semifinals.”
Wind the clock back to early February and Atletico delivered a 4-0 defeat to Real that left the club in institutional crisis. It rocked the foundations and provoked a desperate run of form that had the hierarchy wondering whether Carlo Ancelotti’s time as coach was up.
That had followed elimination from the Copa del Rey, further defeat in the league and a Supercopa loss over two legs for good measure. Whether it’s over 90 minutes or 180, Atletico has the edge on its city rival.
Ancelotti clung on. The last-16 aggregate win over Schalke was unconvincing and only brought more questions. Anything approaching that level of performance on the part of Real Madrid will see the team eliminated.
Real can count on the returns of Ramos and Luka Modric, which is good news indeed, but there is no guarantee that the presence of those two will do anything to stop the flow of successive positive results for Atletico.