It was a familiar story at the Vicente Calderon on Sunday evening following yet another Real Madrid success over their poor relatives. A story that more often than not involves rotten luck and a reality check for Atleti, and precedes a relentless march towards success from Real. It’s been that long since the paupers beat the princes in Madrid that the winning goalscorer that day, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, has moved on to four different clubs.
But this time it was going to be different. This time Atleti had a chance to show they were ready to challenge for a Champions League spot, this time they had the attacking depth to trouble even this meanest of mean defences (Real have conceded just 14 goals in La Liga this season), this time their hopes were not pinned on Fernando Torres, and this time they wouldn’t be so naive. Except they were.
As early as the first minute, a player- Pablo Ibanez- who might well have been in the Real team had men in suits not intervened, recklessly undid all the hype, all the hopes for the home supporters, by committing himself naively against the ever-improving Robinho, who simply skipped round him and squared the ball for a player- Raul- who might well have been in the Atletico team had men in suits not intervened, to sidefoot home. Inside 35 seconds, the home fans had gone from fierce optimism to sombre resignation. Here we go again.
To be fair, their side attempted to avoid the predicted collapse, Thiago Motta powerfully clattered the crossbar with a header, Iker Casillas (surely the best keeper in the world on current form) made fine saves to deny Raul Garcia & Diego Forlan, before getting the slightest of touches to tip Kun Aguero’s snap-shot onto the bar. And that’s when it set in. Real were going to win. The fans knew it, the television viewers knew it, and most importantly, the Atletico players knew it.
Sure enough, Real went down the other end, won a corner, and Ruud Van Nistelrooy was left completely unmarked at the back post to sweep a left foot shot past the despairing claws of Cristian Abbiati on the goal-line. Forty two minutes gone, game over.
The second half was predictably anti-climactic, Atletico huffed and puffed but never looked convinced that they could come back, whilst Real did just enough to keep the home side at arms length, without ever seriously threatening to embarrass their hosts further. The whistle could not come quick enough for either side to be honest. As the Real players left the field at a typically downbeat Calderon, their body language told its own story.
This is a side that expects to retain the league title with ease, a side that is so used to winning that they barely feel the need to enjoy it, a side that has the best record ever in La Liga for the first half of a season, and has now completed the complete set of away wins at their closest title rivals. To the Camp Nou, El Madrigal & the Mestalla now add the Vicente Calderon.
For Atletico, it is back to the drawing board. The attacking flair of Aguero, Forlan, Reyes, Simao (unfortunately forced off injured in the first half), Luis Garcia & Maxi Rodriguez is all very well, and will win them more games than they lose, but if they can’t shrug off this mental barrier, and continue to gift goals the way Pablo did here, it will be another nine years before they can earn some bragging rights in the city.