It was another wild weekend in soccer as Real Madrid shrugged off “crisis” talk to beat Atletico in the derby, the top three in England (Tottenham, Liverpool, Chelsea) all dropped points, Bayern’s flaws are proving hard to paper over and Dortmund responded to a humiliating defeat by firing manager Lucien Favre. The Manchester derby was a frustrating snooze, Juventus won a fourth in a row for embattled boss Andrea Pirlo, and Arsenal‘s woes continue to pile up.
Real Madrid respond to “crisis” week with three big wins
After defeat against Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League on Dec. 1, the script was pretty clear: Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane had, according to the media, three games to save his job. (Or, perhaps more accurately, three games to decide if he wanted to stick around). Three games with plenty at stake against Sevilla away, Borussia Monchengladbach to avoid a historic group stage Champions League exit and table-topping Atletico Madrid in La Liga.
And what happened? Real got three wins and three clean sheets, including Saturday’s 2-0 win over Atletico in the derby, which was their first Liga defeat since Feb. 1.
More importantly, it wasn’t just three wins, it was three convincing performances, three games that remind you that Real Madrid have really gifted players who, for whatever reason, rally behind their manager with purpose when they sense he’s in trouble. Of course, folks like Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane would be better off — as would the team — if they did this more regularly rather than, as often happens, just often enough to get a result.
It wasn’t just about character and application, either. Zidane also earned his bacon in terms of tactics and game prep. Dani Carvajal’s return at right-back helped stabilize the back line and provided attacking oomph. Lucas Vazquez (picked ahead of Rodrygo and Marco Asensio) out on the wing was another hit: he offered a steady supply of service to Karim Benzema. My colleague Sid Lowe noticed another wrinkle: Modric and Kroos lined up very wide in the midfield three, helping to shut down Atletico on the flanks.
As for Atletico, Diego Simeone making three changes at half-time (off go Hector Herrera, Yannick Carrasco and Felipe, on come Angel Correa, Renan Lodi and Thomas Lemar) and overhauling his system — lest we forget, they were only 1-0 down at the time — was the equivalent of a manager holding his hand up and saying “I got it wrong, let’s try something else.”
Crucially, it was the change he didn’t make until 17 minutes from full-time that contributed to his downfall. Luis Suarez contributed close to zero in this game, in part because he looked woefully out of form, in part because Atleti simply couldn’t get him the service he needs. Yes, there’s a streak of sentimentality in all of us and, maybe, in Simeone too: perhaps he thought the old warrior would find a way.
The other substitution that will be talked about was yanking Joao Felix at the hour mark for Saul. The young Portuguese phenom didn’t appear to take it well at all, and while you can’t fault Simeone for wanting Saul (despite his indifferent form of late on the pitch) perhaps that was the moment to take off Suarez, not Joao Felix.
Atletico remain level on points with Real Sociedad, but they have two games in hand. You pretty much have to consider them frontrunners to win the league at this stage, despite the weekend defeat. If you’re Simeone, it’s not tough to spin the narrative, internally at least, that while Real Madrid can best them head-to-head (as they’ve done regularly of late), leagues are won in the weekly grind of results. And, here, with a bit of Cholismo (whether 1.0 or 2.0), Atleti have to believe they can do it.