Real Madrid cruised to a 3-0 home win against Eibar on Saturday despite missing the likes of Toni Kroos, James Rodriguez (both suspended) and Gareth Bale (slight injury). It was a nice win for coach Carlo Ancelotti, as it left Los Blancos within two points of La Liga leader Barcelona after the latter drew 2-2 at fifth-place Sevilla later in the day, despite having jumped out to an early two-goal lead.
The little break for the likes of Kroos, James and Bale will have done Real no harm, particularly as it came ahead of Tuesday’s crucial first leg in their UEFA Champions League quarterfinal series at Atletico Madrid. Ancelotti was pleased to report that he will have a full squad to choose from for the first leg of his team’s two-game series against is hated city rival.
Of course, a little over 11 months ago, Atletico was on the wrong-end of an historic 4-1 hammering by its neighbor after extra time in this competition’s final in Lisbon, after having been mere seconds away from ending the season as European champion after normal time. For Diego Simeone’s men, it was a crushing loss, despite the fact that Atleti had already finished the season as Spanish champion.
For Real, La Decima, or a record 10th European crown, was arguably the club’s greatest-ever achievement. Which makes it kind of unbelievable that Ancelotti is being made to answer questions about his future prior to Tuesday’s clash. But this is the world that coaches of Europe’s top teams live in: win something (or sometimes multiple something’s), and you get to keep your job. Lose, and you’re done.
It follows, then, that Ancelotti will be under much greater pressure to win this derby series than his counterpart. Indeed, Atleti can lose this series without any consequences for Simeone, as long as his team qualifies for the UCL next season. In fact, it’s probably not a coincidence that Simeone signed his big contract extension with the club until 2020 just a few short days after Atleti landed Real in the UCL quarterfinal draw.
Ancelotti, on the other hand, must finish the season with at least one trophy in order to keep his job -- and his team is already out of the Copa del Rey (thanks to Atleti, no less). With La Liga out of Real’s direct control, a loss in the UCL quarterfinal would undoubtedly result in Real’s directors immediately sending out feelers for his successor.
To make matters worse for the Italian, he has a terrible record against Simeone’s Atletico, with just three wins, three draws and five losses in all competitions since he took over at Real in 2013. Though the 2014 UCL final was certainly the most important of these encounters, Real has lost four of its last six games against Atleti since, drawing the other two.
Make no mistake about it: Ancelotti knows this is his bogey team, and by a big distance. When a man who’s won three UEFA Champions League titles and two FIFA Club World Cups says, of his opponent: "Facing Cholo Simeone is a big honor, but also big trouble,” he means it.
Asked to reflect on his defeats to Atleti, Ancelotti noted, "every game has its problem and every game has its idea. Each defeat was different: dead ball play, lack of attitude.... They were wholly different games. It's hard to say what has happened. We have analyzed it. We know that there will be two matches, we don't need to win, we could draw both games and qualify.”
Simeone, meanwhile, absolutely loves the fact that his team is a perennial underdog against Real; he uses it to get the most out of his players, to instill in them a belief that they can surmount any odds through concentration and hard work. Speaking after Saturday’s 2-2 draw against Malaga, the Argentine -- with a view towards Tuesday’s home clash, when the pressure will be squarely on the visitor -- noted, “I don’t like playing in games which don’t suit us because we have more responsibilities than Malaga and the crazy nature of the game suited them more.”
Indeed, Simeone’s teams don’t like to be forced into taking the initiative, they like to absorb pressure, using water-tight defense to spur counter-attacks that either lead to chances or set-pieces. They win by making fewer mistakes than their opponents, which is precisely why offensive-minded Real has such problems against this well-organized team.
Simeone’s men head into Tuesday’s clash knowing that they have the twin advantages of less downward pressure as well as a superior head-to-head record vs. Ancelotti’s Real. Now that Atleti is nine points adrift of Barcelona in the Spanish league and out of the Copa del Rey, the fact that the UCL is the only title they can realistically still challenge for, coupled with the fact that they will also want revenge for last year’s loss in the final, will only serve to make this team hungrier.