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Atletico Madrid v Real Madrid: Simeone and Zidane face dangerous, defining Derbi

17 November 2017 09:00

Real Madrid have won more trophies than they have lost LaLiga matches since Zinedine Zidane took charge. They are the only team to win the modern Champions League two seasons in a row and are just six months on from their first league and European double since Alfredo Di Stefano was the world's best forward.

And yet, regardless of the boss's insistence to the contrary, they head into Saturday's derby with Atletico Madrid in crisis mode.

Zidane started the season – only his second full campaign in charge of a senior football team – as Madrid's greatest modern head coach. His successes in just under two years at the helm at the Santiago Bernabeu have been astonishing. He took command of a dressing room on the brink of revolution under Rafa Benitez and turned them into champions of Europe within five months. A second Champions League, a first LaLiga title since 2012, two UEFA Super Cups, a Club World Cup and the Supercopa de Espana followed. 

Now, he faces the first uncertain waters of his post-playing career. The Madrid machine was sputtering and struggling for a few weeks before it broke down completely at Wembley two weeks ago, a smouldering wreck torched by a turbo-charged Tottenham.

"We're not in crisis," Zidane said afterwards. "I'm not worried and I won't be for the rest of the year, whatever happens." He is, of course, entitled to say that. Even in football's modern myopia, where managers are sacked before league tables reach double figures in any column, casting doubt on Zidane's position seems hugely unfair: the domestic trophies are not beyond Madrid's reach and they are on track for the Champions League knockouts once more. 

Then again, this is no ordinary club; in Florentino Perez's very particular meritocracy, two defeats in a row and an eight-point deficit to Barcelona is tantamount to treason.

For once, though, Madrid are preparing for a derby when the pressure on the other side of the city is probably just as high. Diego Simeone has earned a position of near-imperviousness when it comes to the critics, having turned Atletico Madrid into a European heavyweight (with the trophies to match) since 2011, and inculcating a winning ethos that puts many of the continent's old elite to shame.

There has been a shift in the last year, though. Ever since Simeone revealed he had thought of walking away following 2016's Champions League final defeat – their second in three years to Madrid – not all has been well in Cholo's world. They finished empty-handed last season and their hopes of upsetting Madrid and Barca in 2017-18 were effectively dashed when they failed to overturn a transfer ban. Even the caveat of Antoine Griezmann deciding to stay hasn't paid off: the France star, who hasn't scored since September, is already being touted for a move next year.

Again, we need moderation. Atleti have lost one match all season, none in LaLiga, and have the arrivals of Diego Costa and Vitolo in January to look forward to. Avoid defeat on Saturday, and they will match a club-record start to a season of 12 league games without defeat, and record a best-ever unbeaten sequence under Simeone of 16 matches. But no wins in their last four at the new Wanda Metropolitano stadium is far from perfect preparation for the visit of the bigger boys from across town.

It's only mid-November but this is a match that could shape the futures of Simeone and Zidane. Both possess squads a little lacking in depth that will need rejuvenating over the next couple of years. Both, too, are pinning goalscoring hopes on elite forwards who simply can't get out of a rut: Griezmann and Cristiano Ronaldo have managed fewer league goals combined this season than Deportivo Alaves, the division's worst scorers on five. It also doesn't need repeating that both teams realistically need a win to keep their chances of hauling in runaway leaders Barcelona intact.

Atleti have won four of their 11 league derbies under Simeone, which is as many as they managed in the 44 before his arrival. Zidane's first trophy – the 2016 Champions League – came at Atleti's expense. Each coach has fond memories of claiming city bragging rights.

Neither, however, will be sitting comfortably should they lose this weekend. And however unfair it might seem, the outcome of LaLiga's 161st El Derbi could see one or both of these clubs take the crisis talk seriously, and even start to ponder the previously unthinkable: whether it's time to give others a chance in the hottest seats in the capital.

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