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Sunday, July 21, 2024

Real Madrid forced to settle for Atletico draw, as ‘season of survival’ continues

With hands on heads, their faces marked by frustration and incomprehension, Real Madrid’s exhausted players looked just like the fans in the stands of the Santiago Bernabeu following Marcos Llorente’s 93rd-minute equaliser for Atletico Madrid.

It was as if the bad start to their night had foreshadowed how it would conclude.

Before Sunday evening’s La Liga kick-off, the home supporters’ tifo broke just before it was unfurled, somewhat taking away from the moment’s impact. Then there was a mix-up with the starting XI. Vinicius Junior withdrew from the warm-up, but was still announced as a starter on the public address system. Brahim Diaz was named as the Brazilian’s replacement, even though it had been reported that it would be Joselu.

It was as if something was already jinxed for Los Blancos, who with victory could have taken advantage of Girona’s draw the day before and moved four points clear at the top of the table. Instead, they ended up damaged by a dose of their own medicine. As Atletico keeper Jan Oblak put it: “Normally it’s Real Madrid who score in the last minutes.”

Atletico’s leveller came just before the referee blew his final whistle and was scored by Llorente, a player who was raised in Madrid’s ‘La Fabrica’ youth academy (he was there from 2008 to 2016, and made 39 appearances for the first team before joining Diego Simeone’s side in 2019).

However, Atletico could easily have scored earlier in the match, given the weak situations in Madrid’s defence, and everyone sensed that if an away goal was going to come it would be from an aerial ball — just as it happened.

Real Madrid came into their fourth derbi meeting with Atletico of the season with a makeshift backline. In addition to their three long-term absentees Thibaut Courtois, Eder Militao and David Alaba, Antonio Rudiger was also ruled out after picking up a knock against Getafe, and Aurelien Tchouameni was suspended after collecting his fifth yellow card of the league season in Thursday’s 2-0 win.

On Friday, sources close to former Chelsea man Rudiger — who preferred to speak anonymously to protect their position — said the German was trying everything he could to make the match, despite the fact his injury “hurt like hell”. But by Sunday, the 30-year-old was clearly in no fit state to play, as he could not even run. No risk would be taken, not even with a player described as “a warrior” by coach Carlo Ancelotti.

Madrid, then, had only one fit centre-back in their entire first-team squad, with Nacho. In addition, two potential options from reserve side Real Madrid Castilla, Alvaro Carrillo and Marvel, were also injured. Even Tchouameni, the emergency pick, was unavailable.

Although Ancelotti had spoken at Saturday’s pre-match press conference about Dani Carvajal, Ferland Mendy and Eduardo Camavinga as alternatives, the plan had been clear since Friday. The Italian was aware then that it would be almost impossible for Rudiger to play, and he had started to work with the idea of having Carvajal as Nacho’s partner.

The situation in the medical room also influenced the choice of goalkeeper, with Andriy Lunin once again getting the nod. It is the first time since ‘rotations’ between the Ukrainian and Kepa Arrizabalaga began that one of them has started three games in a row.

The coaching staff believe that Arrizabalaga, on loan without option to buy from Chelsea, picked up an injury just when he was starting to show his best this season. That was when Lunin took his chance. They see the 24-year-old as a who is now growing, despite some failures, having been ‘freed’ from the pressure of being behind Thibaut Courtois. They also think he is more solid than Arrizabalaga in aerial balls.

In their previous La Liga meeting in September, and in the Supercopa de Espana semi-final in January, Atletico had scored early headed goals. Again on Sunday, their plan was clear — to further test Madrid’s defence, especially with Ancelotti’s backline (Lucas Vazquez, Carvajal, Nacho and Ferland Mendy) defined by a lower than usual stature.

Atletico made a total of 19 open play crosses (to the home side’s 10) and swung in eight corners (Madrid had two). They tried 27 aerial balls to Los Blancos’ 12. The strategy showed until the very last play, when Llorente struck to punish the home side, and Nacho’s passivity in the box, as the Atleti man stole in to claim a point.

Victory would have seen Madrid move four points clear in La Liga (Angel Martinez/Getty Images)

But despite the result, Ancelotti was happy with his team. “We deserved to win, we can’t reproach ourselves for anything,” he said. “We lacked a bit of height, because there we obviously had to suffer in crosses. They took advantage of a lot of crosses.”

To a large extent, Antelotti’s team was diminished by the failure to bring in a centre-back in the January transfer window. Although he called for such a reinforcement in meetings with the board, he has played down its importance in front of the media.

Instead on Sunday, the Italian coach preferred to point out that Rudiger would soon be back fit, that Tchouameni will return in the key La Liga home match against Girona next weekend, and he also showed hope that Camavinga, who left the pitch looking very sore, had only suffered a minor knock.

It has been a season of survival for Real Madrid. The most important part is still to come.

(Top photo: David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)

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