Diego Simeone was the making of the Madrid rivalry; now, it could be the breaking of him. That, at least, is the way some have framed this match and, while suggestions that he could be on the edge are wildly exaggerated, while fans and board have backed him, Atlético Madrid’s manager is under greater pressure that at any point since he took over eight years ago. For the first time, the feeling lingers that his era – and it is his era – may be edging towards the end; for the first time, there are questions raised about their very own Che Guevara, a victim perhaps of the expectations he created, the revolution he led.
“That [criticism] doesn’t depend on me; what depends on me is producing a great match tomorrow,” Simeone said on Friday. “I will go to the Santiago Bernabéu with the same enthusiasm as ever.” For some, though, that enthusiasm has waned, concern taking its place. “What I think of Diego Simeone hasn’t changed: he’s one of the best managers in the world,” the Real Madrid manager, Zinedine Zidane, had insisted an hour or so earlier. Although Zidane replied “no” when he was asked whether he understood people criticising and doubting Simeone, the very fact that he was even asked was significant.
A year or so before Simeone arrived at Atlético, a banner was unfurled at Real Madrid’s home which stood out then and has stood out even more since: a mocked-up classified advert, it asked for a “worthy rival for a decent derby”. They got just that: Atlético beat Madrid for the first time in 25 games and 14 years to win the Copa del Rey at the Bernabéu in 2013; they won the league title in 2014; and they took the European Super Cup off them in 2018. For the past two years they have finished above their neighbours. There were two Champions League finals (in 2014 and 2016) as well, of course.
They have played in Lisbon, Milan, Tallinn, New York and Jeddah. No city rivalry can match it. And although Europe was different, Real eliminating Atlético four times, although those Champions League finals were lost and they hurt, Simeone likening the second defeat, in Milan, to a “death” that required its period of “mourning”, they kept competing.
The last time these two teams met, in the Spanish Super Cup final in Jeddah, Atlético again lost in a penalty shootout. Afterwards, Simeone was swift to note that in six finals between the two teams, Atlético had not lost in 90 minutes. Yet 11 days later, Atlético were knocked out of the Copa del Rey by third-tier Cultural Leonesa. That was the first time a lower-division team had eliminated them since Albacete in December 2011 – the defeat that brought Simeone back in the first place. They also lost 2-0 at Eibar and drew 0-0 against Leganés. This is the worst La Liga start they have had under him.
In the summer Atlético lost six starters (Diego Godín, Filipe Luís, Juanfran, Lucas Hernández, Antoine Griezmann and Rodri) the spine of the team gone, the old guard and the leaders leaving, but they spent €261m and defeated Madrid 7-3 in a friendly in New York. “I don’t think either team thinks that has anything to do with the situation now,” Zidane said, but it did change things. Expectations, above all. Simeone tried to insist, even then, that this would be his hardest season but instead there was euphoria, the hope that his team would be even better.
That enthusiasm has started to evaporate. They have scored 22 goals in 21 league games and defensively they are not what they were; Real have a better record. They are not even in a Champions league place now. Simeone, to whom they will be forever grateful for resuscitating them, now has some wondering whether with this team, these players, this style, his profile, is right. He called this a “transitional” year, but few wanted to hear that and the team no long seem quite so clearly made in his image, as if they no longer believe so fiercely in what they are doing.
And if the derby, revived by him, is a measure of just how great his impact had been, the fear is that the impact of a loss might be significant too, a measure of their doubts. A loss may appear more likely this time, too, even if the last two meetings have finished 0-0. More like those bad old days, the imbalance is back. Defeat would virtually end any hopes they have of winning the league, leaving them 13 points behind their neighbours. For the first time in a long time, it feels as if the derby has tilted back towards Real.
Atlético have not lost in six visits to the Bernabéu domestically, but Simeone was asked about the pervading pessimism. “You can choose how you approach life: with enthusiasm or without it; I choose with enthusiasm,” he said. “In difficulties, there are opportunities.” He also insisted that he “wouldn’t listen” to what was said and that the week’s training had been “good”.
Those sessions, though, had key absentees: Diego Costa, João Félix, José María Giménez, Santiago Arias and Koke are out. Kieran Trippier did not train. He is unlikely to start, although Gareth Bale is not in Real’s squad after an injury. Edison Cavani did not arrive, despite the pursuit but Yannick Carrasco did, returning to the club from China. Real Madrid meanwhile, winners of the last derby on penalties in the Spanish Super Cup final, psychologically strengthened once more, are unbeaten in 20, going back to October. They have conceded only nine goals in that time; there are few signs of vulnerability. Soon Eden Hazard should be fit again, ready to play a part.
Zidane, asked to explain the change, how he went from on the ropes to on the top, said: “There are lots of reasons, lots of ingredients, but above all work and confidence. We believe in what we are doing. But tomorrow is another game and we have to show it again.” For Atlético and for Simeone, that need is even greater.