Perhaps it chould have been expected. With so much at stake, two teams that know each other so well failed to deliver a classic in this match – their seventh showdown of the season already. A goalless game leaves the tie wide open for its second installment at the Santiago Bernabeu next week, but Madrid let Atleti off the hook here.
It was an improvement for Real. Carlo Ancelotti’s men had failed to beat Atleti since the Champions League final last May, with four defeats and two draws since then. On Tuesday, they missed the chance to draw a line under that wretched record – and Atleti will have nothing to fear ahead of the return match next Wednesday.
Nevertheless, this was infinitely better than their last trip to the Vicente Calderon, the 4-0 defeat to Diego Simeone’s side in February. But it could have been much more satisfactory for Los Blancos.
Gareth Bale, much-criticised coming into this fixture, missed a glorious chance to open the scoring early in the game when he shot straight at Jan Oblak. Atletico afford few such opportunities to their rivals and afterwards, Madrid were restricted mainly to long-range efforts.
In the second half, the disappointing Karim Benzema laid the ball back to Cristiano Ronaldo when he should have shot himself from a fantastic opening. Again it was a let-off for Atleti and the home side finished the game on top, looking more likely to score themselves and willed on by their vocal fans.
In many ways, this match followed the pattern of recent derby encounters: Madrid made the play, Atleti absorbed the pressure. This time, however, Ancelotti’s side did at least manage to keep a clean sheet, playing with much more intensity than in the past few games against their city rivals.
“I think we deserved more than 0-0 in the first half,” Real boss Carlo Ancelotti said afterwards. “Our first half was fantastic, we played with a lot of personality. The second half was different, Atletico have pressed more. The result is not so good, but we are confident after the game we’ve played and what has proved the team.”
Real’s intensity nearly boiled over when Mario Mandzukic was left bloodied by a stray elbow from Sergio Ramos. The Atletico striker cut a furious figure prowling the pitch and the touchline hunting for retribution. But it showed that Real were up for the fight against an Atletico side often accused of being over physical.
“Atletico are one of the best teams in the world at defending, and it’s difficult for us to find solutions,” Ancelotti added. “We had some chances in the first half but Oblak has done a great job.”
Real’s controlled aggression could be key. When Atletico have scored first against Madrid, Los Blancos find it almost impossible to break down the disciplined defence in front of them. They managed it in epic style in the Champions League final as Sergio Ramos headed home deep into added time, but they have been frustrated by Simeone’s side ever since.
“I am very happy with the team’s reaction in the second half,” Simeone said after this one. “Normally when a team is overcome in the first half, they concede in the second. But that didn’t happen. We had chances, more of the play, intensity in the challenges and Oblak wasn’t needed so much.”
With no goals in this match, the first one will still be vital. Effectively it is only half-time and Atleti will have no fear because they have already claimed two score draws and a win at the Bernabeu in 2014-15. Any of those results repeated would take them through to the semi-finals for a second season in succession.
So although Madrid’s malaise in the fixture was brought to an end by an improved performance down by the river, the European champions missed a wonderful chance to bury their derby demons,
There is still all to play for in chapter eight.
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