Zidane Pulls Back From the Brink as Real Madrid Beat Atletico Madrid in the Derby

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This time last week, Zinedine Zidane was potentially two defeats away from losing his job as Real Madrid manager. First, his team faced a crunch Champions League clash with Borussia Monchengladbach in which defeat would send the 13-time kings of Europe crashing out of the competition before the knockout stage. After that, a meeting with rivals and La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid awaited.

Madrid came through the first test to ease the pressure on Zidane, beating Gladbach 2-0 to secure passage to the round of 16, where they will face Atalanta. The scrutiny would have quickly returned had Madrid lost to Atletico, but Zidane led his side to another win by the same scoreline on Saturday. Madrid would have fallen nine points adrift of top spot with defeat; instead, they are now just three points short of the summit.

This Madrid team is far from perfect, but the performances against Gladbach and Atletico show that the players still have faith in Zidane. The Frenchman has plenty of credit in the bank after guiding Los Blancos to the La Liga title last term and three Champions Leagues in his first spell in charge, but no Madrid manager can survive a sustained downturn in form. Zidane, therefore, deserves credit for overseeing such comfortable wins when his team needed them most.

In his pre-match press conference on Friday, Zidane claimed that Atletico is the favorites to finish on top of the pile this term. He will no doubt continue to play down Madrid’s chances in public, but Saturday’s success makes the outlook a great deal brighter at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Statistics Do Not Tell the Full Story as Madrid Manage Game Superbly

Expected Goals (xG) is a useful statistic for assessing underlying performance in the medium to long-term, but it can be limited as a device to evaluate individual matches. Saturday’s contest at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano is a case in point. The xG – 0.65 vs 0.78 – suggests Atletico shaded a tight game, but anyone who watched the action in the Spanish capital knows that Madrid were worthy winners.

The home team came flying out of the blocks, pinning Atletico back in their own half. By the time Diego Simeone’s side began to string a few passes together for the first time, they were already behind to a Casemiro header. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric dominated the midfield, as Koke and Hector Herrera struggled to build the play for Atletico. Kroos in particular was given ample time and space to pick his passes and dictate the tempo.

Atletico offered very little in attack throughout the first half. Luis Suarez cut a frustrated figure up front, bemoaning a lack of service while showing little willingness to make runs into the channels or behind the Madrid backline. Joao Felix was forced to drop increasingly deep in search of possession, while Kieran Trippier hardly saw the ball despite getting into some good positions down the right.

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Too Little, Too Late for Atletico as Simeone’s Side Pass up the Opportunity

Atletico started sloppily after the break, conceding the ball inside their own third on three separate occasions inside the first five minutes. Thomas Lemar missed a gilt-edged chance to equalize – and the game could have turned out very differently had the Frenchman converted at the far post – before a Jan Oblak’s own goal from Dani Carvajal’s fierce strike doubled Madrid’s advantage.

It was puzzling to see Simeone withdraw Felix with his team needing two goals, but perhaps the Argentine was already turning his attention towards this weekend’s game against Elche. Atletico had more of the ball in the last 20 minutes, but Madrid were largely untroubled as they held on for a seventh win of the La Liga campaign. Victory over Athletic Bilbao on Tuesday would see the reigning champions draw level with Atletico and Real Sociedad on 26 points.

Saturday’s setback was a missed opportunity for Atletico. There is no great shame in losing to Madrid – although it is never a pleasant experience for their local rivals – it was the manner of the display that was most disappointing.

Atletico took too long to get going and could not match Madrid’s early intensity and aggression. This was an opportunity to lay down a marker against the champions, but Atletico passed it up. Simeone will be demanding a response on Saturday.

Atletico Still the Favorites to Win La Liga but Madrid Are Improving

Perhaps Zidane’s comment about Atletico being title favorites was not just a case of mind games. DraftKings Sportsbook agrees with the Frenchman’s assessment, listing the 2014 champions at +125 to get their hands on the trophy again next May. Madrid has shortened in the market, though, and are now available at +175. Barcelona has been very inconsistent so far this season and are nine points off the pace, but are nevertheless third-favorites at +350.

Madrid has now won three games on the bounce in all competitions without conceding a goal. This is a team with shortcomings, and they are unlikely to win the Champions League this term. However, it would not be a surprise to see Madrid hunker down domestically and start grinding out victories like they did towards the end of last season, which ended with Los Blancos adding another league title to their collection.

“We used Modric and Kroos to find the way out, it’s true,” Zidane said of his game plan against Atletico. “We had to do it. And then playing fast from one side to the other and with diagonals, we found gaps. They’re f*cking great, they’re exceptional.

“Karim, too, and Lucas [Vazquez], he is phenomenal, and Carvajal, and our captain [Sergio Ramos], [Raphael] Varane. They are all very good. They are at the level of the three Champions Leagues we won in a row,” he said. “They are playing at a very high level.”

Cristiano Ronaldo, the star of those Champions League-winning squads, is plying his trade elsewhere these days, but Saturday’s derby showed there is still life in Madrid’s long-serving players, and in their manager too.

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Greg Lea

Expert on Soccer

Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]