1:58 PM ET
Sid LoweSpain writer
Real Madrid’s Zinedine Zidane has gone from are you going to resign? to are you going to be Alex Ferguson? in seven days.
The answer, in case you’re wondering, was no. Both times. A lot has happened in a week, and it’s not over yet. There’s one more match to come tomorrow night and it may be the biggest of them all — a decent derby against a worthy rival, just as they demanded all those years ago. Against a team, in fact, that right now are better than they are. But then that seems to be the way Real Madrid like it.
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If defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk in Kiev last week was a portrait of Madrid’s decline — as one headline put it last Wednesday — “Valdebebas against Borussia Monchengladbach” this Wednesday was a picture of their revival, the mood dramatically changed.
After last week’s loss, Madrid were on the edge, facing the prospect of being knocked out in the group stages of the Champions League for the first time ever. Beaten by Alaves before that, Real were also seven points off the top of the table domestically. Worse, they were six points behind neighbours Atletico Madrid, despite having played two games more. And Atletico looked ominously good, winning every game. In other words, they were potentially 12 points off.
December had only just begun, and Madrid’s season was already over. It would be if they carried on like that, anyway. And the week that lay before them could end it.
Twelve points off? How about 15, or even 18? And with Europe’s doors closed, too?
Atletico are undoubtedly the favorites to win the derby and perhaps even La Liga, though they’re trying to ignore those terms and the pressure that comes with it. PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP via Getty Images
Madrid had to go to the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, where it can feel like they always get beaten, and face an impressive Sevilla side that had prioritised the league over their meeting with Chelsea. Then they had to face group leaders Borussia Monchengladbach, with a last-16 spot on the line, and next up came Atletico Madrid, unbeaten in 25 games. Diego Simeone’s men had killed off Barcelona, many thought; now they would have the chance to do the same to Madrid.
As for Zidane, he seemed unlikely to carry on at all. At the end of that defeat in the Ukraine, the first question was direct: are you going to resign? As if the decision was even his. In the board room, they were furious. He was on the edge, and make no mistake: this was not press talk, this was “president talk.”
“I feel strong,” Zidane said a few days later, “but I know where I am.” Oh, he knows alright.
Even he wasn’t untouchable. “I never felt I was, never,” Zidane said. “Not as a player, a coach, or person.” He knows that even on the morning he won a third Champions League final in a row, he was being openly questioned by the men above him. He had won that day, and he’d then walked away. He had walked back again because they had needed him — he had said no the first time, before they talked him round — but there was no immunity.
Asked if this was the most difficult moment in his managerial career, he had admitted that, yes, yes, it was. And yet, he added, he’d been here before.
This week would define his season. Dec. 9 was “D Day,” they said. Or, if not, Dec. 12 would be. “We’re going to come through this,” ZIdane insisted.
They did, too. Again. Madrid seem to perform better under pressure, everyone agreed. Sometimes it can feel like they need something special to get them going, some danger to draw the best from them, a little jeopardy to get the juices flowing. Big occasions, not small ones.
On Saturday, they won in Seville. On Wednesday, they beat Borussia. On Saturday, they face Atletico. And this feels different now.
“When we have the desire, no one can hurt us,” Karim Benzema said after the 2-0 victory over ‘Gladbach. “We wanted to show that we’re the best.”
ESPN FC’s Ale Moreno credits Diego Simeone for looking to his defence to lift Atleti to the UCL knockout rounds.
There may have been something else they wanted to show: their support for Zidane. This was a reaction; it was also a rescue mission. Every time there has been an ultimatum — think Istanbul, think the clásico, think Inter — they have risen up and put it off. Now comes the final stage. And even if it is no longer a decisive one in terms of the manager’s future, it may be for their hopes of retaining the league title.
Except it no longer looms as a threat. Obligation has become opportunity. This, the third game in a week that was set to define their season, now feels completely different: where there was a fear, the awful prospect at Atletico ending it for them and culminating a calamity, here is hope that they may find in their city rivals the final phase of their recovery. Whether that is actually a good thing for them may be a different matter altogether.
There’s the emotion, the symbolism, the history, all those intangibles. But then, there’s something simpler. And put simply, Atletico are the best team in Spain right now.
Top of the table, Atletico are the only side that have not been beaten. They’ve not been this well-placed in the title race since they won the double in 1996. They were not this well-placed in terms of points when they won the league six years ago. They have dropped points just twice, winning eight of 10 games. Their goal difference is plus-19. That’s 14 goals better than Madrid.
Oh, and they’ve conceded just two goals in 900 minutes of football.
Let’s say that again: Two. In 10 matches.
Neither time even mattered: they were five goals up against Granada when they conceded, two goals up at Osasuna when they let one in there. They have not been beaten this season, no; they have not even been behind. Or to put it another way: Real Madrid conceded more goals in 40 minutes against Alaves than Atletico have conceded all season. And Atletico have scored more too.
Zinedine Zidane suggests he won’t be a long term manager at Real Madrid and is only looking at the short term.
A year ago, these pages asked if Atlético could evolve; 12 months on, it looks like they really might have done. Some of the old “them” is there — and that defensive record, curiously broken in Europe, is classic Simeone — but there’s something else now, something good. More possession, more control, more variety.
Joao Felix is different, arguably the best player in Spain this season. If he’s not, maybe Marcos Llorente is, the kid with the Madrid heritage becoming a revelation at Atlético. And then there’s Luis Suarez.
Koke is at his best and in the middle again. Angel Correa is playing well. Yannick Carrasco — remember him? — is actually back. Even Thomas Lemar is playing well. He scored last week: it was his first goal in 20 months, just in case you doubted the transformative power of this team.
This may be the best chance that Atletico have to win the league. It may be the best chance they have ever had, including the seasons they actually did. All over Spain, people are falling over themselves to declare them candidates.
Candidates? No. Favourites. Atletico won’t ever say that, but everyone else will. It’s been quite weird to watch, in fact: a kind of desperation to thrust the favourites tag upon them, met by their kind of desperation to push it away again. You’re the best, no we’re not, yes you are, no we’re not.
Given the position they’re in — unbeaten, six points clear, two games in hand — it is natural. They’re being labelled favourites because, well, because they are. But that’s not the only reason. Win this weekend, go 15 potential points ahead of Madrid and it will become inevitable, which may be part of the point.
Simeone, back left, and Zidane, front right, are demanding coaches in one of the most demanding cities when it comes to soccer. PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP via Getty Images
It’s not the Atletico fans projecting them as the team most likely to win the league. If ever there was a team that has felt the pain of hope destroyed it is them. They were called El Pupas, the jinxed one, for a reason. This is the club that’s experienced more false dawns than Truman Burbank. Until Simeone came, it was what they did. He broke that, except when it came to the European Cup finals… against Madrid. There, cruelty reached new heights. (Or is that depths?) No one wants to tempt fate again.
They know not to expect, not to embrace everyone else’s expectations. They knew not to trust the talk of crisis across the city, so much so that there may even be a sense that, for all the confidence the last two results have given Madrid, even the Atlético fans took some comfort from their rivals winning again, perhaps even welcoming it.
It was confirmation of what they knew, and had so painfully experienced before, but others seemed to ignore: you never give Madrid up for dead. It was a very public demonstration that their rivals remain a fearsome team; it was also a chance to reject the favouritism and the obligation loaded upon them by outsiders. It was Zidane going from the man who should leave now, to the man who should not leave ever and thus is no longer in need of a familiar rescue mission from his players.
Above all, Atletico know better than to trust those bestowing the status of favourites upon them. Not least because they do not trust those people at all. They suspect ulterior motives, and while the refusal to embrace reality can be comic at times, they may not be entirely wrong.
This isn’t pure, they suspect, and it is not praise; it is pressure. The compliments are debilitating. It is a means of saying: See? We said you could play better football, a means of breaking Simeone’s mantra, the first rule of his management: partido a partido, game by game, inch by inch. It is a way of obliging Atletico to win the derby, telling them that they should not aspire to beat Madrid, but expect it. It is to make winning a title normal and losing it a failure.
In short, it’s loading the burden on Atletico. After all, the theory goes, it’s hard to respond when it’s not enough to want to win; you have to win, anything else a failure. No one wants to have live with that pressure.
No one, perhaps, except Real Madrid, who can’t live without it.