Real back to full strength for Battle of Madrid
After cup and league shame, Ancelotti's men must end Atletico hoodoo
QUARTER-FINAL, FIRST LEG
ATLETICO MADRID v REAL MADRID
(Tomorrow, 2.40am, Singtel TV Ch 111)
Carlo Ancelotti awaited the executioner's blade again. Atletico Madrid had killed him off more times than a bad soap opera.
Real Madrid were a punchline and their manager a punching bag.
Their trip to the Vicente Calderon Stadium in February was a defeat too far.
Conceding four goals was farcical. Failing to beat Atletico in six encounters was unforgivable.
Diego Simeone's serial winners dashed for the Madrid sunset with a bag of swag filled with the Spanish Super Cup, the Copa del Rey and their first La Liga double over Real in 64 years.
Self-respect no longer belonged to Los Merengues after that 4-0 defeat in February. The mighty had fallen. They were mice against men.
Humbled by the same team in three competitions, Real now stand at the precipice. The Champions League quarter-final could push them into the abyss.
A fourth failure guarantees humiliation and a post-season sacking for the manager. La Liga alone is not a Kevlar vest in the Real Madrid dugout.
Only an 11th Champions League crown offers immunity.
If Ancelotti fails to beat Atletico at the seventh attempt tomorrow morning (Singapore time), he effectively brings down his own axe.
But this time, the visitors could throw a lucky seven.
In the previous encounters against Atletico, Real were usually handicapped.
The early meetings came too soon, with Ancelotti still bedding down newcomers like James Rodriguez as the coach took a scalpel to his squad in a bid to ensure the Colombian was on the same wavelength as the BBC.
That's Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, Real's attacking triumvirate, who have inadvertently conspired to produce dips in form at different times.
Individually exceptional but collectively erratic, the trio lacked the spectacular cohesion of last season, when Bale was allowed to settle before Spain's parochialism took hold.
BANE FOR BALE
This season, his Welshness has almost been held against him, as if his birthplace automatically rules him out of Madrid's best 11.
Every mistake was magnified, every near miss multiplied by powers of 10, usually by the Portuguese perfectionist beside him.
But Bale is battling his way back, mentally and physically. Rested for Real's stroll past Eibar at the weekend, the Welshman's bruised body has recovered. After finding his feet against Granada a couple of weeks ago, he's ready to walk tall again.
That 9-1 romp against Granada was an important breakthrough for reasons beyond the scoreline.
Not only did the BBC score eight goals between them, but Rodriguez, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric all featured.
Ancelotti finally had the cream of his crop to choose from and three easy victories followed. Real's stars are aligning at last.
If the mood and mindset of a city were a pendulum, then it has swung towards the Real half of the Spanish capital.
But it was a different story in February. Apart from Modric and Rodriguez, Sergio Ramos also missed the Atletico debacle. It was a red flag to their rivals' bull.
Mario Mandzukic battered Real's makeshift back four that night. Los Merengues were left looking like lemons.
But that was then. Now, Atletico are the bruised fruits. Mandzukic has sat out their last two matches with an ankle injury.
Atletico missed him, labouring to a 2-2 draw against Malaga. Antoine Griezmann shouldered the burden with a brace because Fernando Torres no longer can.
His homecoming delighted hopeless romantics, but statisticians are less impressed with his goal tallies.
Torres is one of their own on the Atletico terraces, but a fading force on the pitch.
Simeone's eagerness to declare Mandzukic fully fit to face Real betrays the concerns of an uncertain coach.
A potent, but possibly damaged, weapon is better than no weapon at all.
For the first time in seven meetings, Simeone owns the monopoly on form and fitness headaches.
Four draws in their last seven La Liga games suggest momentum is slipping away.
Apart from Mandzukic, Diego Godin's injury still hurts the defence.
The champions are third in La Liga and flagging.
So the onus is on Real to make amends at the Vicente Calderon Stadium.
Ancelotti's men must end the Atletico hoodoo or a new nightmare begins.
Real still look up to Barcelona at La Liga summit, but it's what lies beneath that may haunt them for years to come.
The form guide
Atletico Madrid's 2-2 draw at Malaga last Saturday extended the La Liga champions' unbeaten run to eight games, but that has included four draws as their title defence collapsed.
Diego Simeone's men are now fighting for a Champions League spot with Valencia and Sevilla and their hopes lie in Antoine Griezmann, who scored four times in his last three games, while strike partner Mario Mandzukic has been passed fit despite a niggling ankle injury.
Real Madrid have recovered their form after a recent slump, with three consecutive victories and 14 goals in the past week.
Carlo Ancelotti can boast a fully fit squad for the first time in five months.
ROAD TO QUARTER-FINALS
Atletico Madrid: Winners of Group A ahead of Juventus. Beat Bayer Leverkusen 3-2 on penalties after a 1-1 aggregate last-16 draw.
Real Madrid: Winners of Group B ahead of Basel. Beat Schalke 5-4 on aggregate in the last 16. - AFP.
This season at the Vicente Calderon: Atletico 7 Real 0
Atletico Madrid have beaten Real Madrid three times at the Vicente Calderon this season, scoring seven goals and conceding none.
- Aug 22: Atletico 1-0
A second-minute goal by Mario Mandzukic settled the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup, as Atletico won 2-1 on aggregate.
- Jan 7: Atletico 2-0
Despite leaving out regulars like Juanfran, Koke and Arda Turan, Atletico beat Real 2-0 in the first leg of their Copa del Rey tie.
- Feb 7: Atletico 4-0
Capitalising on a Real backline shorn of Pepe and Sergio Ramos, Atletico romped to their first league win over their rivals since 1999.