Real Madrid’s grand week came to a perfect end on Saturday. If these three games in seven days are to define their season as the narrative had declared, far from coming to a premature end it looks set to turn out nice again. Zinedine Zidane was on edge and on an ultimatum, his team threatened with elimination from the Champions League group stage for the first time ever and with being left so far adrift domestically as to be virtually done. But they did what they always seem to do in situations like these and rose again, beating Sevilla, beating Borussia Mönchengladbach and doing what no one had done since February by beating Atlético Madrid too.
On Friday afternoon Zidane had declared Atlético favourites to win the league; on Saturday night his team defeated their city rivals 2-0 with a first-half goal from Casemiro and then an own goal by Jan Oblak. Diego Simeone’s team had not lost for 26 matches – going back to the last time they faced Real Madrid – and although they remain top, the title race was opened up at Valdebebas. It is one that includes Real now, too. Not just because of the score, but also because of the script this game followed. As for Zidane, here was more evidence that the only reason to doubt him is that it is precisely that doubt, that danger, which brings the best from his players.
On Saturday, they did it again; Atlético had swept almost everyone else aside, winning eight of their 10 games, but against Real they managed only a single shot on target. And if Real’s opening goal was an act of simplicity, Casemiro leaping alone to head in Toni Kroos’s corner, there was a logic to their lead and to the victory that it set up. The derby was only 14 minutes in, but a pattern had emerged already and Real had taken a control they never really looked like relinquishing.
Oblak had already dived to deny Karim Benzema, pushing his shot against the near post, and Atlético were struggling to get possession. In previous seasons that might not have mattered; this year, when the ball is a more integral part of their identity, it did. Now they had a new scenario to confront: struggling to escape their own half, denied the breathing room to pick out a pass. After 914 minutes, Simeone’s side trailed for the first time this season. Worse, they were almost two down soon after, when Lucas Vázquez’s speared delivery evaded Benzema at the far post.
“When we play like this, no one can hurt us,” Benzema had said in midweek and ultimately Atlético could not. Kroos sent the ball diagonally from one side to the other and back again, opponents always a little too late to stop him, a percussive quality to his play in the silence of Real’s empty training ground, a smooth elegance in the way he imposed himself. Atlético seemed unable to find a foothold. Even at this early stage Kroos had completed 23 passes; Koke just six.
Simeone reacted, shifting to a four. João Félix briefly appeared, a lovely piece of skill taking him up the wing. But when an opportunity did open up, the Portuguese was unable to release Luis Suárez running into space in the middle, and that too told a story: by half-time the Uruguayan, heavy-legged, had been able to complete just three passes. There were not many more from Koke or from Marcos Llorente, so often their motor. And when Félix departed on the hour, he did so having been unable to make an impact. When Suárez followed him 10 minutes later, nor had he.
Even that late, 70 minutes gone, Thibaut Courtois’s sole intervention had been when he pushed away a corner. If that was a shot, it was the only one in the first half. And when a genuine opportunity at last arrived in the second, Thomas Lemar struck the side netting from three yards after Llorente pulled the ball across the six-yard box. The Frenchman put his head in his hands and Simeone looked to the skies, unable to believe that Atlético’s first shot could be such an awful one.
If this at least looked like it might be more of a contest now, it wasn’t really, and that mistake was swiftly punished. When the ball came out to Carvajal from a half-cleared free-kick, he took one touch and then, on the bounce, smashed a 30-yard shot into the net via the post and Oblak’s back. Atlético had conceded twice in 900 minutes beforehand; in an hour, that number had doubled.
Two substitutes combined to create Atlético’s best chance with 10 minutes left, Saúl diving to head Lodi’s cross, but Courtois was there, flying to meet it, and this was as good as over. Every game the Belgian makes a superb save; here was another. Some things, it seems, are inevitable. And easy though it is to say after the event, Real Madrid winning here, just when they and their manager appeared to be on the edge of the abyss, is one of them.