Once a fixture that was repeated in two recent Champions League finals, this season’s Madrid derby comes at a time when the result may not have a say in the La Liga title race. Atletico Madrid are 9 points behind league leaders Barcelona while Real are a further 13 points behind.
Los Blancos are clearly focusing on the Champions League and it remains to be seen if they will play their full strength squad ahead of Juventus’ visit. It is a double-edged sword for Zidane – win the game and gift Barcelona the title or lose the game and fall further behind their city rivals.
This is a fierce rivalry that divides a city and it could be decided more so by who keeps their composure rather than the tactics drawn up by Zinedine Zidane and Diego Simeone. Nevertheless, here are three key battles that will decide the tie.
Predicted formations: 4-4-2 (diamond) vs 4-4-1-1
#1 Diego Costa vs Sergio Ramos
Sergio Ramos vs Diego Costa – a battle to look forward to
Having sat out the first five months of the season until Atletico’s transfer ban was lifted, Diego Costa roared back into the limelight with a goal on debut before he was sent off for celebrating with the crowd.
But the emotions were crystal clear. Costa was back home; where he had made a name for himself prior to his move to the Premier League. Since his debut in January, he has 6 goals and 3 assists to his name.
And he will be up against none other than Sergio Ramos. The Spanish defender is no stranger to Costa, having faced him and played with him in the Spanish national squad. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses – if any.
Ramos has mastered the art of defending in recent years – even when he is outnumbered. He constantly checks his surroundings while his quick movements and gambles usually pay off. Costa, on the other hand, will use his physicality to get his teammates into the game.
An intriguing battle awaits us.
#2 Casemiro vs Antoine Griezmann
Will Zidane ask Casemiro to man-mark Antoine Griezmann?
With Costa leading the line for Atletico, Antoine Griezmann will most likely hang back as a support striker. Griezmann will also look to move to the right flank with Marcelo tasked with attacking down Real’s left, inevitably leaving space behind him due to Zidane’s narrow formation when they attack.
Raphael Varane may be kept busy by Costa’s lateral movement too so this is where Casemiro will have the tough task of keeping an eye on Griezmann. When Marcelo is in the attacking half, Casemiro will move into the space vacated and keep Real Madrid’s shape at the back intact.
However, Zidane could even deploy him as a midfielder meant to do nothing but man-mark Griezmann; i.e. block the passing channels that feed him or stick to him like glue and hinder any sort of progress he could make with the ball at his feet.
In return, Griezmann will probably look to put pressure on the base of Real’s midfield, initiating Atletico’s counter-press. Expect a yellow card from Casemiro if this is the case because the Brazilian has been dispossessed 28 times in the league this season and has 7 yellow cards to his name.
#3 Cristiano Ronaldo vs Diego Godin
Diego Godin will have his hands full with Cristiano Ronaldo playing as a centre-forward
14 goals in 30 matches. That is the number of goals Atletico have conceded so far this season – the best defensive record in La Liga. Heck, it’s the best record in Europe’s top five leagues.
With Gareth Bale doubtful of starting the game and Karim Benzema drawing blanks this season, the burden of scoring against the best defensive side in Europe may ultimately fall on Cristiano Ronaldo’s shoulders.
The Portuguese forward no longer plays on the wings but more like a centre-forward. He has already grabbed a brace against another top defensive side in midweek which included a wonder goal against Juventus. Zidane needs a repeat of that performance.
Also read: Juventus 0-3 Real Madrid: Tactical Analysis – Ronaldo masterclass ruins Allegri’s plans
But getting past 36-year-old Andrea Barzagli is arguably easier than trying to score past 32-year-old Diego Godin. The Uruguayan defender has won 45 aerial duels (Ronaldo has won only 31) and 44 tackles in the league this season.
The reverse fixture in November saw Ronaldo fail to score from 7 shots on goal of which 4 were blocked. Nobody else in the game had taken even half that many shots. Godin had made 9 clearances (another game high).
But this is Ronaldo who has scored 23 goals for Real since the turn of the year. And if there is one thing we have learned, it is that you do not write off Ronaldo.