Groundhog day for Atlético

Southern Madrid side faces task of reversing 23-game winless streak against Real

Atlético de Madrid coach Diego Simeone during Tuesday's pre-derby press conference.
Atlético de Madrid coach Diego Simeone during Tuesday's pre-derby press conference. ÁNGEL DÍAZ (EFE)

When Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink fired a rocket past Bodo Illgner on October 30, 1999 to seal a 3-1 win for Atlético over Real Madrid at the Bernabéu, few in the red-and-white half of the capital would have feared they were witnessing their side’s final victory over its arch-rival for more than a decade. Atlético had won by the same scoreline the previous season and held Real to a 1-1 tie in the return fixture in 1999-2000.

Since then, Atlético has failed to win any of the 23 derby matches contested between the two sides in La Liga. Even its 1999 win was bitter-sweet for Atlético; the four points it took from Real contributed to preventing John Toshack’s team from finishing in second place and gaining automatic Champions League qualification at the expense of Barcelona, but Claudio Ranieri led the rojiblancos into Segunda. On a dark day for the Andalusian capital, fellow heavyweights Betis and Sevilla also descended as Deportivo swept to the league title.

How times have changed. But when the derby comes to town, the script is all too familiar. For the opposing coaches at the Calderón on Wednesday night (La Sexta, 10pm) the capital clash throws up differing challenges. For José Mourinho, who has won all five of his derby matches, it is simply three more points in his quest to hold off Barcelona’s late challenge.

For Diego Simeone, who lost all five of the derbies he contested as an Atlético player, victory would represent a place in the club’s lore, tardy vengeance, the undying adoration of his public. With Champions League qualification now eight points out of reach with six matches to go, defeating Real and leading Atlético to the Europa League final would be a good return for the few months he has been in charge. The foundation for failure to reach Europe’s elite competition was effectively laid in the first half of the campaign.

Times may well have changed. But when the derby comes to town, the script is all too familiar

“There are various things that condition the game [for Atlético],” said Real assistant coach Aitor Karanka, who was on the bench with a young Iker Casillas that day in 1999. “Mostly, the need for points, its players and the character of El Cholo [Simeone]. Changing coach for someone with his history with the fans and with the club’s shirt has worked out well. He has passed that on to the players and has achieved results. Atlético is in the semifinals of the Europa League. His character and the unity he has brought has been the main factor.”

Although it is unlikely to affect professional players as much as commentators tend to make out, the gap between Barcelona and Real could be just one point by Wednesday, with the reigning champion playing Getafe on Tuesday night. And Atlético will try to make matters as uncomfortable as possible for the visitor, as much from the stands as on the field.

“It’s not normal,” said Atlético’s Brazilian playmaker Diego of his side’s barren run. “But on the field we have to forget about this. We all know it is something that everybody wants to change and to do so we have to work hard for the full 90 minutes. And that is what we will do.”

Aiding Atlético’s quest is the return of striker Radamel Falcao, who missed last weekend’s loss at Levante. The Colombian is the only player not on the books of Real or Barcelona in the top scorers chart, with 20 league goals this season. Is he a Hasselbaink in waiting?

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