Real Madrid versus Barcelona. That is the pinnacle of rivalry, full of hate, intensity and matches that often devolve into as much wrestling as soccer. For so long, there’s been no equal.
All of that virtues are still there today, but in this moment, and exclusively on the pitch, Real Madrid’s rivalry with Atlético Madrid is right on that level. In Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League quarterfinal clash, we saw again how Atlético has risen to make the Madrid derby as good as any in the world, with the passion underlying this rivalry giving us so much more than the final’s 0-0 score.
Atlético Madrid started today’s match with its foot not quite entirely on the gas. And that’s not to say it didn’t try hard; the team just tried differently. Whereas Atleti normally press Real Madrid aggressively and usually cause El Real problems with its pure tenacity, Atlético backed off on Tuesday, easing its press. That may have caught Real Madrid off guard, though Carlo Ancelotti’s team was set up to get players forward to attack a more passive Atleti.
It took all of five minutes for Real Madrid to get a chance at goal, which Gareth Bale had saved, but if also left the Merengues confused and yelling at each other. The visitors were frustrated from the start.
The match would devolve into Real Madrid yelling at each other, Atleti goalkeeper Jan Oblak (above) becoming a hero with a slew of good saves, Real Madrid then yelling at Atlético Madrid, and Iker Casillas making some fine saves of his own. Mario Mandukic eventually started bleeding profusely from his face before penalty shouts, crunching tackles, punches thrown (and possibly a bite) left both teams fuming. All the while, two sets of fans yelled, cheered, screamed, called for blood and left convinced they were robbed by bad luck, the referee and a horrifically dirty other team.
You know what that sounds like? An incredible rivalry. It’s one not just based on proximity or history. It’s not even predicated on hatred and physicality. Even to say that is depends on the stakes isn’t fair.
The Madrid derby now has it all. The two teams occupy the same city and a long history of conflict. Their hate gives us punches, elbows, studs up tackles and lots of blood. And they aren’t just playing in the Champions League quarterfinals. They met played in the final a year ago and have battled for La Liga and the Copa del Rey.
It’s incredible that the rivalry has reached this point. For decades, Atlético was just another pretty good team in Spain that looked up at Real Madrid and Barcelona. It may have shared a city with the Merengues, but that was all the two teams had in common. Atlético went 25 games without a win against its rival.
Now Diego Simeone has changed that. He changed Atlético Madrid. Now the club challenges for trophies, and the biggest trophies, at that. His players are mean and smart. They’re physical and they’re tactical. They’re a pain to break down.
That won’t change in the next leg either. Real Madrid is going home, but Atleti has shown it can frustrate El Real at the Bernabéu, too. The team has shown it can be brilliant in its plan and devastating in its execution, be that home or away. And you can bet that every single sign of hatred, competition and rivalry that was on display at the Calderón will be on full display across town at the Bernabéu.
The best rivalries in the world have it all. This one did on Tuesday.
The best rivalries in the world also don’t have off matches. This one won’t next week.