Atlético Madrid have been playing in the Vicente Calderón stadium since 1966, the year it was deemed sufficiently complete to host games again. Atlético had been forced to play for a season in the Bernabéu, and they were keen to return to something called home. They must have enjoyed their return, because they won the league title that same season – the summer of England’s famous World Cup win. The stadium was originally called the Manzanares, reflecting its geographical position by the banks of the river of the same name, in the south-western Arganzulea district of Madrid. Work continued on the uncompleted stadium until 1972, when the official inauguration took place, with General Franco and his named successor, the young King Juan Carlos in the VIP boxes. It was re-named after the club’s president at the time, Vicente Calderón, and has seen some controversial characters and players pass through the ranks, as well as millions of cars under one of the stands, propped up to allow the M30 motorway to pass underneath.
At the end of the season it will close , having seen the club take six league titles in total under its stewardship, reach three Champions League finals and even spend a couple of seasons in the Second Division. The club will move east to La Peineta (Madrid’s Olympic Stadium), a stadium whose capacity by then will have been swollen to 70,000 – 15,000 more than can currently fit into the Calderón. The move has not been welcomed by all fans, and protests have taken place, but the ground will probably not be missed a great deal by neutrals. Under the Jesus Gil regime it seemed a particularly hostile and unwelcoming place, and the far-right were allowed to freely unfurl their banners there for too long. Since Simeone’s return as a coach and the success that has accompanied his presence, the club has cleaned up its act considerably, understanding the monetary value of a more law-abiding image to portray to the watching world.
It’s not difficult to see where all this is leading. Last Saturday’s derby at home to neighbours Real Madrid was the last time the fixture would be played in the quirky old stadium, and with the hosts struggling to find their form of last season, leaking goals in uncharacteristic fashion and not scoring them consistently, a defeat at home in this context and these circumstances was not really on the agenda. Real Madrid were the undefeated leaders, but were not playing particularly well. However, three hours before the game, a Messi-less Barcelona (also without Luis Suarez) could only draw 0-0 at home to Málaga, a result which lent even more interest to the final-curtain derby in Madrid. Once upon a time, after the furore of Atlético’s double-winning side of 1996 had faded, Real Madrid found the Calderón a place for easy pickings. Amazingly, Atlético only won once in twenty derbies at home from 1992, returning to happier times in 2014 with their famous 4-0 win and winning three seasons on the trot in the Bernabéu. There was thus a feeling that the game and the occasion offered the perfect chance for them to pick themselves up and get their title challenge back on the road.
It wasn’t to be. Real Madrid, showing little sympathy for history or for the occasion, won the game 3-0 and consolidated their position at the top of La Liga, pulling four points clear of Barcelona and setting Atlético nine points adrift. Real Sociedad’s win at Sporting on Sunday night condemned Atlético to 6th spot, behind the Basque team, Villarreal and a rampant Sevilla, now up to 3rd place. It’s tempting to read rather too much into the result, and it may be wise not to get quite so carried away as the euphoric Madrid press, always pretending to be equally committed to Atlético’s cause but showing their true colours after this kind of result.
Nevertheless, it has to be said that the visitors played better than in recent weeks, and without Toni Kroos and Casemiro were still able to control the midfield, giving the enigmatic Isco the freedom to roam and trusting in the Croatian pairing of Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic behind him. It seemed a risky place to depend on guile rather than on muscle – especially with Sergio Ramos on the bench – but it worked just fine. Cristiano Ronaldo, just to poop the party even more, scored a hat-trick and left behind indelible nightmares for the present generation of Atlético fans. His feat took him past Alfredo di Stéfano as the Real Madrid player who has scored most ‘derbi’ goals (18). Ronaldo got lucky too, although in general he played well. His free-kick was deflected into the net (they often are) and the second-half penalty that effectively killed off Atlético’s comeback was a little dubious, to say the least. His third was the most legitimate, set up by Gareth Bale’s ability to use space more tellingly than in previous seasons, and the hosts were left with the prospect of restoring a smile to their own faces on Wednesday night in the Calderon, against PSV.
Sometimes the Gabi-Koke midfield just isn’t clever enough, and if the full-backs are being covered by the opposing wide players (Bale and Carvajal did this to perfection), then the route to Carrasco and Griezmann gets blocked, and Fernando Torres, try though he did, was simply starved of the ball. For Real Madrid however, Isco – short and stocky with the gait of a pensioner – is nevertheless a player who can control a game simply by virtue of the unpredictability of his oddly staccato changes of direction, and his ability to make the ball stick. It gives time to team-mates, allows forwards to move unseen and generally causes a strange sort of havoc, when it works. Indeed, last week at Wembley, once Isco was on the field, England seemed uncertain of what to make of him. By the time they’d tried to adjust, Iago Aspas had pulled a goal back and then Isco himself scored the equaliser, in the dying seconds. The goal did his confidence no harm, and it carried over noticeably into the Calderón. Kovacic looks good too – and all this without Casemiro, supposedly the player who had turned Madrid’s season.
Next week Real Madrid entertain Sporting, a side on a terrible run of form and who were plastered by the emerging Real Sociedad 3-1 in Gijón on Sunday night. They’ll need to win their tricky midweek game at the other Sporting in Portugal on Tuesday night, but in theory next weekend’s fixture should be a comfy one for them. Neither will it have escaped their attention that next Sunday night Barcelona visit Real Sociedad, where they have not won in the league for five seasons. Anoeta has become their bogey stadium, and just to make matters worse, Sociedad are playing some of their best football for years, and are on a run of four consecutive wins. The Catalans travel to Celtic in midweek where they should theoretically win, although Celtic have improved since the 7-0 drubbing at the Camp Nou and will definitely make their guests work for their supper. They need all personnel up and running for next weekend, or else Real Madrid will be threatening to ride off into the horizon.
Sevilla, who host Juventus on Tuesday, made a remarkable comeback from 2-0 down at Deportivo on Saturday, scoring the winner in the 94th – which always feels good. They play struggling Valencia next week, a side still unable to kick-start their season (they were held 1-1 at home by Granada) and who will be potential punch-bags for a confident Sevilla, seemingly up for the fight despite the recent reversal at home to Barcelona.
Real Madrid have not been so far ahead at this stage (after 12 games) since the 1991-92 season. It might not mean a great deal, with 26 league games still to play, but one thing can be said for certain – with Sergio Ramos, Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Pepe missing, Real Madrid won convincingly in the Calderón. Barcelona, on the other hand, without Messi, Luis Suárez and Andres Iniesta, were unable to overcome 10-man Malaga in the Camp Nou. That might be the best conclusion to draw from the weekend, with regard to how the next phase in this interesting season might develop.