The final domestic Madrid derby of the season sees league leaders Real Madrid host an Atletico Madrid on the ropes, in the middle of the biggest crisis Diego Simeone has faced during his tenure in the Spanish capital.
Here are six questions ahead of a crucial derby for both sides.
1. Can Madrid get the Cholo mono off their back?
Curiously, Real Madrid have failed to win this fixture at the Santiago Bernabeu in the league since December 2012 but, given the current state of both teams, it feels like this run might finally come to an end on Saturday afternoon. Bookmakers are giving Diego Simeone’s men plenty of respect this weekend given their incredibly impressive record at the home of their eternal rivals but this derby feels different. The Argentine coach no longer has “his” men to count on; the experience of Diego Godin, Juanfran, Felipe Luis etc was crucial in these games, to be able to ride the pressure when on the ropes.
Despite their excellent form, question marks still hang over Zidane’s side, especially in attack. Their last really convincing wins came against Eibar at Ipurua and the following week against Real Sociedad and they have ground their way to victory since.
Arguably their two best performances in recent months came against their toughest opponents in PSG and Barcelona, but despite these impressive displays they failed to register a win.
Madrid have been very efficient recently but that might not be enough on Saturday afternoon. Can they combine a dominant display with some badly needed cutting-edge in attack?
2. Can Atleti handle their own (old) medicine?
How the tables have turned. For years renowned as set-piece kings, Atletico are now no longer the threat they were when they had the likes of Diego Godin, Raul Garcia and Miranda in their ranks. On the other side of town, however, Real Madrid continue to be extremely dominant when it comes to dead-ball plays, scoring a half-dozen times thus far. Toni Kroos is having a spectacularly season, registering four goals and eight assists in all competitions. His delivery from set-pieces could be pivotal tomorrow – can Atletico stop him from adding to his tally?
3. The battle of the two best defences in La Liga: who will come out on top?
At this stage of the season last year Madrid had conceded 13 goals more than Cholo’s men and 11 more the year before. A lot has changed since, Los Blancos are now statistically the best defence in La Liga with a very impressive 13 in the goals against column, one less than their city rivals.
Both teams will eventually find openings on Saturday; Madrid should enjoy significantly more and in a derby as tight as this, one defensive error could make all the difference. Atleti look nervous and unsure all over the pitch at the moment and this has been particularly evident in defence. They shipped four goals on the road at Eibar and Cultural Leonesa recently and have conceded seven goals from dead balls in total. They will be put to the pin of their collar at the Bernabéu.
Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane are no stranger to lapses in concentration themselves and the likes of Angel Correa will be ready to pounce on any mistakes. Both teams have struggled in attack this season and the deadlock may be broken from a defensive error rather than a moment of magic. Will there be a villain?
4. Will Atletico turn up both physically and mentally?
Over the last 12 months, Atletico have been found wanting in the really big games on the road. We all know what happened in Turin last season when Simeone’s men were blown away without the slightest sign of resistance. Things haven’t been much better this season. Apart from the second half at the Sánchez Pizjuán, Atleti have failed to stamp their authority on a game away from home in La Liga and, at the other end, they have lacked that cutting edge and bit of streetwise-ness to turn a 0-0 into three points.
Can they finally step up to the plate on Saturday afternoon and take the game to their eternal rivals?
5. Who will win the midfield battle?
Thomas Partey put on an exhibition in this fixture back in September, showing an incredible array of passing and a level dominance which more than justified the faith placed by Simeone in the Ghana international over the last year. Fede Valverde also featured in that derby and it feels like the trajectories of both players have gone in very different directions since: Thomas’s form has dipped dramatically and he has failed to find any sort of consistency while the Uruguayan has exploded onto the scene; his energy, work-rate and versatility has seen him become a hugely important cog in the Madrid midfield machine.
Their battle in the engine room will prove pivotal.
6. Can Isco make the difference?
Zidane’s faith in Isco has been repaid – partly, at least. The Malagueño has become an important member of the team again and it’s curious that he has received plaudits for his work-rate and compromise rather than the silky skills which we all know he has in his locker. But Madrid need more from their no.22. With one Supercopa goal and zero assists to his name this season, Zidane will be looking for a more tangible return, rather than just kilometres covered.
Isco has the potential to pop up in the danger area between Atleti’s floundering midfield and defence and he has the ability to really hurt Simeone’s men.
If he does get the nod, Isco needs to take the game by the scruff of the neck and help his team attack the heart of the visitors’ defence, rather than the slow, sideways passing he so often indulges in.