Judging by Carlo Ancelotti’s reaction to their 3-1 Copa del Rey quarter-final win against Atletico Madrid on Thursday night, even the Italian does not understand his Real Madrid side.
“I don’t know how the team could play so badly in the first half and so well in the second,” he said.
His disbelief was understandable — this was Real Madrid’s second comeback win in a week, having gone more than four months without one. Those previous fightbacks were against Real Mallorca (September 11) and Almeria (August 14) in La Liga, but their two most recent ones against Villarreal and Atletico Madrid, both in the Copa del Rey, held much more meaning.
Despite a taxing January in which Real Madrid have played a match on average just over every three days, Ancelotti’s side have shown they are able to handle adversity. They did so again at the Bernabeu on Thursday night, in a match overshadowed before kick-off by the latest racist attack on Madrid’s star forward Vinicius Junior.
In the stands, fans produced an atmosphere worthy of a Champions League night, but otherwise, there were few signs this was a special occasion. It seemed like just another game for Madrid, who started in that fashion. Within 19 minutes, their former player Alvaro Morata had scored a tap-in to put Atletico Madrid 1-0 up.
It seemed as if things would get worse for Madrid when starting left-back Ferland Mendy withdrew with injury shortly before the break. Once again, however, Ancelotti changed the game and inspired a turnaround to take his side to the Copa del Rey semi-finals.
Substitute Rodrygo scored a brilliant equaliser in the 79th minute before Karim Benzema and Vinicius Jr wrapped up the victory in extra time. Here, The Athletic analyses a big derby win for Real Madrid.
Another comeback inspired by the substitutes
Real Madrid’s squad depth made the difference again, just as it had done in their Copa del Rey round-of-16 win against Villarreal.
“The cost of January is high, but there is depth in the squad,” Dani Ceballos said in the mixed zone after the Atletico win. He and Marco Asensio came off the bench on Thursday, as they had done against Villarreal, but this time the decisive player was Rodrygo; the same Rodrygo who had been scolded by Ancelotti a week earlier for not acknowledging him as he left the pitch.
“I told him not to forget to acknowledge me when he comes off,” Ancelotti explained afterwards — even though the Italian coach loves the forward.
Rodrygo had been frustrated at his role in the team, which he believed did not reflect all his work in training. But against Atletico Madrid, with all eyes on Vinicius Jr, Rodrygo turned that frustration into a brilliant individual goal. He beat Axel Witsel on the break, left Mario Hermoso trailing, wrong-footed Stefan Savic and finished with the outside of his right boot to draw the sides level in the 79th minute.
It was a move reminiscent of the forward’s fellow countryman and Real Madrid legend Ronaldo Nazario, whose knees Rodrygo touched affectionately in an interview during the World Cup to see if any magic would rub off on him.
— RonaldoTV (@RonaldoTV09) November 28, 2022
But it started from a deeper position than Ronaldo used to occupy because Rodrygo loves to play between the lines. His decisiveness late on in games also deserves a mention: 11 of his 27 goals for Real Madrid have come in the last 15 minutes of games.
Real Madrid will hope Rodrygo is back for the league game against Real Sociedad after he had to be replaced in the 115th minute, with Ancelotti saying afterwards the forward had a problem with his Achilles tendon.
Ancelotti’s four untouchables
Four players have proven themselves to be untouchable under Ancelotti and they showed up again on Thursday: Thibaut Courtois, Eder Militao, Eduardo Camavinga and Karim Benzema.
Courtois continues to appear at key moments for Real Madrid and he produced a fine stop from Antoine Griezmann’s free kick in the 70th minute. It helps that he has Militao in front of him, one of the few Real defenders whose form has not dropped since appearing at the World Cup. The Brazilian put in a fine performance against Atletico, only missing three passes out of the 120 he made (a 98 per cent success rate), making 13 ball recoveries and seven clearances.
Camavinga is also becoming increasingly important to Ancelotti. The Frenchman started in midfield but impressed at left-back after Mendy came off injured. He was aggressive in defence and made two crucial tackles to thwart Atletico’s attacks late on in normal time.
Benzema, meanwhile, seemed uninspired and exhausted for much of the game. Like Courtois, however, he tends to deliver in the crucial moments. He put Madrid ahead for the first time as he pounced on a mishit shot from Vinicius Jr and has now scored seven goals in seven games since his return from a thigh injury.
The Bernabeu serenades Simeone
As the Bernabeu celebrated Vinicius Jr’s goal, a chant went up across the stadium: “Cholo, stay”, referring to Atletico Madrid manager Diego ‘Cholo’ Simeone.
Atletico’s Copa del Rey elimination against Real Madrid leaves Simeone in an even weaker position than before. His side are fourth in La Liga, 13 points off leaders Barcelona, and the Copa del Rey was their last realistic hope of a trophy.
Simeone drew attention afterwards to a foul from Ceballos which could have led to a second yellow card for the midfielder.
“How difficult it is to explain certain things, for me it’s a very good game that until the 70th minute, when Ceballos fouled him on the edge of the area, nobody cares if he gets a second yellow but we would have had an extra player and the result (would have been) in our favour,” Simeone said.
That will not help Simeone reverse his team’s downward trend. They now only have a place in the Champions League to fight for with four months to go until the end of the season. As one former Atletico employee, who wished to remain anonymous to protect relationships, told The Athletic, things are bad at the Civitas Metropolitano stadium. It’s not just about Atletico’s results, but also the way they are playing and the feeling around the club.
That is why, despite Atletico fans’ continued support, Simeone’s time at the club looks to be drawing to a close. The Argentinian chose not to focus on that in his post-match press conference.
“I’ve been very happy to be at Atleti since the day I arrived,” he said. “I’m going to give everything until I leave, giving my all for the team and the club.”
(Top photo: Ruben de la Fuente Perez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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