KING'S CUP

Cup half full for Liga kings Atlético

Madrid’s southern side goes into derby clash as top dog for first time in 18 years

Real coach Carlo Ancelotti attends to the media ahead of the Madrid derby.
Real coach Carlo Ancelotti attends to the media ahead of the Madrid derby. Javier Lizon / EFE

It is a familiar story, played out between familiar foes on well-trodden turf: the Madrid derby. But since last summer the all-too-familiar outcome has been the most compelling part of the narrative. In days gone by, the pre-match chatter would revolve around whether or not Atlético could battle to a point, or how many Real would be victorious by. Now, there is genuine doubt that Real can avoid defeat.

After 14 years without a win in the local derby, Atlético has won the last two encounters with its illustrious neighbor, in this season's league competition and at the climax of last year's King's Cup tournament, a doubly satisfying event for Atlético fans as Real's Bernabéu was the venue. On Wednesday in Atlético's Calderón (Canal+, 8pm), the sides will meet again in the first of two matches to decide who will contest this year's final against either Barcelona or Real Sociedad.

"Everything is going well for Atlético this season," said Real coach Carlo Ancelotti on Tuesday. "They lead the Primera División, they are in the semifinals of the cup and the last 16 of the Champions League. But it is a knockout game. There are 180 minutes in which to win. Atlético is not an easy to team to play because they defend well and use the counterattack. We will have to be at our best. They beat us in the league but Real Madrid has changed a lot since then."

Until last weekend's 1-1 Liga tie at Athletic Bilbao, Real had not conceded a single goal in 2014 and had won eight straight games in all competitions. Atlético is also unbeaten in 2014, which has seen Diego Simeone's side doggedly assume the lead at the top of the division as the reigning champion and Real faltered at the weekend. The rojiblancos have not been in a similar position since pulling off a league and cup double in 1995-96, when Simeone was an uncompromising midfielder in Radomir Antic's side, a quality he has instilled into his own team.

They beat us in the league but Real Madrid has changed a lot since then"

Real faces an anxious wait to learn if top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo will be available for either leg: the Portugal captain was sent off in San Mamés for a brush with Carlos Gurpegui, who responded as though the hammer of Thor had replaced the number 7's fingertips. However, Ronaldo's reaction to his dismissal — a palm of hand to cheek gesture to the fourth official — is something the LFP disciplinary committee will also review on Wednesday. If he is banned for any length of time, it is unlikely it will be applied to the cup and Ronaldo will serve his penance in league competition.

"I don't think we will have to wait for the committee; I'm sure there won't be a serious punishment. Cristiano will start tomorrow," Ancelotti said Tuesday.

Real will also be able to name Gareth Bale in its squad as well as the returning Raphaël Varane, while Atlético recovers Arda Turan. David Villa, though, has been ruled out of the first leg with a hamstring problem.

In Wednesday's second semifinal, Barcelona hosts Real Sociedad at Camp Nou (Antena 3, 10pm) after a rare league setback: Saturday's 2-3 home defeat by Valencia. "After a loss the next game always serves as a chance to vindicate yourself," said Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino ahead of the match. "And even more so in a decisive cup semifinal."

Real Sociedad also suffered a dent in its Champions League ambitions on Sunday, thumped 4-0 at the Calderón by an Atlético side tearing up the status quo under Simeone.