When the final whistle went, Jude Bellingham shook his head as former team-mate Axel Witsel consoled him while Toni Kroos clapped his hands on his legs in frustration.
Real Madrid had just been eliminated from the Copa del Rey at the round of 16 and had lost yet another derby at the home of city rivals Atletico Madrid after a 4-2 defeat in extra time.
On the way to the players’ tunnel, Madrid captain Nacho reminded the rest of the squad they had to go and applaud the 400 away fans in the corner of the Metropolitano stadium. More than sadness, tiredness was the overarching expression on the faces of most players.
Before the match on Thursday evening, several voices at the club consulted by The Athletic — who, like those cited throughout this article, asked to remain anonymous to protect relationships — had sounded less than enthusiastic about the prospect of facing Atleti so soon after last week’s Supercopa de Espana semi-final in Saudi Arabia, which Madrid won 5-3 after extra time.
Carlo Ancelotti’s team went on to claim the trophy with a 4-1 win against Barcelona, but the prospect of playing a game every three days for the rest of January did not appeal to those inside the club.
That goes some way to explaining Madrid’s unusual relationship with the Copa del Rey, Spain’s oldest competition. While they have won eight Champions League titles and 10 La Liga trophies in the last 30 years, last season’s triumph in the Spanish cup was just their third in 30 years.
“The Copa del Rey has never been thrown away,” a team director said last year, “but if Madrid is the one with the most La Liga and Champions League titles, it’s because of the right order of priorities.”
The director did not feel there was a “single explanation” for Madrid’s comparative lack of success in the competition. But he admitted that Los Blancos are not seen as very “copero” — geared towards success in the cup.
They are the record Champions League and La Liga holders, with 14 and 35 titles respectively, for a reason. That order of priorities has not changed this season: they are one point behind leaders Girona at the top of La Liga with a game in hand and qualified as group winners for the Champions League last 16.
Still, this is a side that is used to winning the tournaments they compete in. And there was no hiding that they were far from their best against Diego Simeone’s Atletico. It was only their second loss of the season, with their first also coming at the Metropolitano in September.
In his post-match press conference, Ancelotti defended the idea his team had “played very well and that they had fought” but errors in defence set Atleti on their way to victory.
In the 37th minute, wing-back Samuel Lino capitalised on an unfortunate Antonio Rudiger header and a hesitant Andriy Lunin to make it 1-0. Madrid equalised after a mistake by Atleti ‘keeper Jan Oblak, but again they showed a lack of concentration in the second half.
Another mix-up from Rudiger and Lunin led to Alvaro Morata making it 2-1 in the 57th minute, although they did not enjoy much luck in front of goal. Joselu’s 82nd-minute equaliser arrived after Bellingham and Rodrygo had both hit the crossbar with earlier efforts.
Those of a Madrid persuasion claimed that Rodrigo de Paul should have been shown a second yellow card by referee Guillermo Cuadra Fernandez for stepping on Dani Carvajal in the 100th minute — 30 seconds later, Atleti went ahead through Antoine Griezmann’s fine solo finish.
The club’s official television channel, Real Madrid TV, took the same line. During their broadcast pundits said that the cup was “third world” and argued the game had been “a trap” because in these competitions “it always goes against Real Madrid” and “anything can happen in Spain”.
But the truth is Madrid made mistakes too. Aurelien Tchouameni was guilty of not closing down Griezmann as he embarked on the run for his goal, letting Vinicius Junior try to hustle the forward off the ball while he stayed central. By the time Rodrigo Riquelme made it 4-2, Madrid’s defence had been split apart and Tchouameni was attempting to cover two players at once.
“With the good season you’ve had, maybe this result doesn’t hurt so much?” a reporter asked Nacho in the mixed zone, when the captain came out to offer his explanations.
“Yes, yes, it hurts,” the 34-year-old defender said. “It hurts because in this club the demand is maximum. We always want to fight for every title. But of course this defeat won’t tarnish anything.”
Somehow Nacho had summed up his club’s priorities when it comes to trophies. The Copa del Rey was not one of them — but defeats against Atletico will always sting.
(Top photo: Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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