The strangest thing about Atlético Madrid´s first Liga win over city rival Real in 14 years was that it often felt like a routine performance. Atlético coach Diego Simeone, who even before last spring´s King´s Cup final triumph over Madrid in the same Bernabéu stadium had molded a distinctly compact and competitive brand at the city´s second club, said as much after Saturday night´s 0-1 victory to maintain his side´s perfect seven-wins-from-seven start: "The players interpreted the requirements of the game very well, without playing especially well."
When Real Madrid swept all before it during pre-season and raced to nine points out of nine in La Liga, coach Carlo Ancelotti must have thought he had constructed a team capable of fulfilling the twin demands of his boss, club president Florentino Pérez: beat Barcelona to the title and at least challenge the Catalans in terms of playing style. However, a couple of minor hiccups (a tied but stirring encounter against Villarreal and a very lucky 1-2 win at Elche) were enough for the home team to start the derby in a tentative fashion, gingerly accepting the lion´s share of possession, but with few creative plans of attack.
Luka Modric, the marshal of Madrid´s midfield so far this season, was left on the bench, but neither Sami Khedira nor the young Asier Illarramendi were able or willing to take on full distributive duties. Real´s early attacks felt more like traps laid by Atlético, so well organized and efficient is Simeone´s team off the ball. Then the counterattacking began, with Diego Costa a twin menace with his potency as a striker and guile when it comes to laying off a pass into space. Atlético´s first task, so often flunked in derbies, was to avoid conceding an early goal. This Atlético can do more than that, though, as the subtle Koke fed Costa a stolen ball and the Brazilian - who has tantalizingly gained Spanish nationality and could still play for his adopted country – comfortably kept pace with Leo Messi in the top-scorer table with number eight for the season in the 11th minute of the match.
In the end, that solitary goal would be enough, but it was hard not to think that the visitor should have gone into half time with a bigger cushion. Atlético had outplayed Real quite comprehensively in the first period, the home side having just three headed half-chances from Ángel di María crosses to compare with Atlético´s half-dozen solid openings from set pieces and good play down the left where full back Filipe Luis roamed with attacking intent. Surely Real would do more in the second half. Modric was brought on for Illarramendi and Di María was unfortunate to make way for Gareth Bale, as Florentino´s eight-digit whim finally made his home debut. And wounded pride was on display as Madrid threw itself into attack, but there was little control and not much style on show.
We have to fix this and fast," said Real coach Carlo Ancelotti after the match
The danger did not seem to lie in Atlético´s nerve failing so much as the visiting team sailing too close to the wind with only a one-goal advantage. On the break, Costa saw a shot hit keeper Diego López´s legs and Koke hit the post with a curler.
Cristiano Ronaldo had what must have been one of his most discreet performances in a white shirt, which he compounded by blazing a promising free kick earned by the galloping Bale way up into the crowd. Ancelotti then felt the opprobrium of a haughtily irate Bernabéu when he removed the talented but marginalized Isco to bring on out-and-out forward Álvaro Morata. The Real mix was now unappetizingly stodgy, with almost no cooks around to season the broth. Bale ran blindly into Atlético´s defensive lines and crosses were sprayed into the box, where Thibaut Courtois had to make one fine save when Morata volleyed acrobatically.
Ancelotti candidly justified substituting Isco by saying that he felt that Atlético´s fine interior work meant the only chance of scoring was from a cross. He insisted that the team had understood the new passing approach he wanted to bring in and had started the season well before losing confidence. "We have to fix this and fast, with a better attitude," he said before dismissing the idea that a five-point deficit on Atlético and Barcelona was important at this stage.
After Barcelona´s 0-2 win at Almería, coach Gerardo Martino welcomed Atlético as a "new rival in La Liga," but back in the Bernabéu press room, Simeone refused to budge one inch from his weekly mantra. The Argentinean insisted that his humble team could not begin to think about competing with the wealth of Real and Barça, but merely work "from day to day," adding: "The most difficult thing in soccer is finding players who will play for the team."