At Real Madrid’s Valdebebas training ground on Monday morning, the European champions were preparing for revenge. Carlo Ancelotti was launching darts at a photograph of Diego Simeone, head coach of rival Atlético Madrid, while Cristiano Ronaldo worked out the best way to publicly embarrass Atleti right back Juanfran Torres. Florentino Peréz spent his time considering where the club’s 11th European Cup would look best.
So perhaps Real Madrid’s revenge plot doesn’t run that deep, but the team still has plenty of reasons to want to beat Atético Madrid on Tuesday night, wight he teams beginning their two-leg UEFA Champions League quarterfinal with part one at the Estadio Vicente Calderón.
Thirty kilometers west of Valdebebas, at Atlético’s Majadahonda base, the current Spanish champions were also talking about the R-word. Six games undefeated against its affluent neighbors is not enough for Simeone’s side. It’s still desperate to avenge last season’s Champions League final defeat to Madrid in Lisbon.
As if Champions League quarterfinals were not highly-charged occasions already, this battle between Ancelotti and Simeone’s teams is littered with subplots and recent history, all of which leaves us guessing as to which team needs revenge most.
That Madrid is even thinking of revenge is something which would have been inconceivable, even laughable, as little as two years ago. When Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink scored twice as Atlético beat El Real in 1999, few could foresee El Rojiblanco falling under a spell, unable to beat its cross-town rival for 14 years.
The ‘party like its 1999’ line was on borrowed time when Atleti eventually lifted the curse, but that didn’t come until 25 games after Hasselbaink’s double, when Atléti’s Copa del Rey final win at the Santiago Bernabéu in 2013 signaled a change in dynamics in the Spanish capital. Now it’s Madrid who seems to be dazzled by the occasion when derby day comes around.
Atlético has not lost any of the six meetings between the two sides this season. What’s more, it has won four of them, lifting the Spanish Super Cup, advancing in the Copa del Rey and recording its first league double over Madrid in 64 years.
February’s most recent meeting between the Madrid rivals saw El Real treated like Córdoba. Four goals hit the back of Iker Casillas’ goal at the Vicente Calderón, Madrid descended into a circus and Ronaldo’s decision to have some fun at his 30th birthday party that very night was seized on by the local press and the club’s fans.
But despite its hold over Madrid this season, Atlético still approaches this week’s Champions League match feeling like el pupas – the jinxed ones. Before last year’s final, the club hadn’t reached Europe’s showcase event since 1974, 30 years earlier. On that occasion it lost to Bayern Munich, who equalized with 30 seconds to play and then won the replay, giving birth to the el pupas nickname.
It could hardly be believed when a similar scenario played out last year against Madrid. Sergio Ramos’ 93rd minute header sent the final into extra time, and more goals from Gareth Bale, Marcelo and Ronaldo at last satisfied the club’s overwhelming desire to win La Décima. And so, Atlético still feels a tiny bit jinxed.
For that reason, this seasons’ wins over Madrid have not been enough. It wants more. It needs more. It may have won the Spanish Super Cup, but it looks out of the race to win La Liga and it was knocked out of the Copa del Rey in the next round. Knocking El Real out of the Champions League may at last offer it some catharsis.
It’s the one trophy Simeone has not yet to win since he took over at the Calderón; it’s the trophy Ancelotti has won three times. Cholo has won La Liga, the Copa del Rey, the Europa League, the UEFA Super Cup and the Spanish Super Cup, but the Champions League is still on his to-do-list, missing from his impressive collection.
Until Ramos’ header, it looked like he’d be able to cross is off last May. Then the curse reappeared.
Madrid, though, can also play the victim. “The [4-0 defeat] against Atlético is a motivating factor for us,” Ancelotti admitted ahead of Tuesday’s match. “It will be a different game, but difficult as it always is against Atlético. There is no favorite.”
Simeone might disagree. Madrid’s resources dwarf Atléti’s (Cholo may have mentioned it before), and Ancelotti has been able to name a full squad for the game. The returns of Luka Modrić and James Rodriguez could condition the outcome of the tie — they were both hugely missed in February, as were Ramos and Pepe.
Neither coach wants to actually talk about revenge, instead insisting that everything that has gone before means nothing. But both must be thinking about it. Both, too, may be tempted to use it to fuel their players.
Ancelotti could ask his troops how it felt to be humiliated by Atlético earlier this year; ask how it felt to have angry fans storming the training ground — even if that can be a regular occurrence at Valdebebas.
In Atléti’s dressing room, Simeone will do whatever it is he does, whether that is bellowing out a war cry or staring deeply into his players’ eyes. If he wanted, though, and this is only a suggestion, because he’s a man of free will who can and does do as he pleases, he may want to mention Lisbon. Whatever works for him.
But revenge cannot be completely found on the banks of El Manzanares on Tuesday night. A step can only be taken towards gaining it. The real day of reckoning will come next Wednesday in Chamartín when the two sides reconvene for the second the leg – the leg that will decide which side is still in with a chance of winning the Champions League.
For the loser, it will be back to Valdebebas or Majadahonda, Mission Revenge unsuccessful.