REAL MADRID-ATLÉTICO

Griezmann shoots down Real's slim title hopes

The Frenchman's second-half strike was the difference as Atleti beat their city rivals 1-0 at the Bernabéu.

Griezmann shoots down Real's slim title hopes
Sergio Barrenechea EFE

Before Saturday’s match at the Bernabéu Real Madrid hadn’t beaten Atlético in the league in five previous meetings. The visitors’ 1-0 victory, courtesy of a second half Antoine Griezmann strike, extended that run to six and inflicted a double blow to their cross city rivals. If Barcelona beat Sevilla on Sunday night the reigning champions will open up a 12-point lead over Real at the top of the table. If Zinedine Zidane’s side left half the league title on the turf at La Rosaleda last weekend, Atlético pinched the other on Saturday: Diego Simeone’s side are five points behind the leaders and now have to be considered the only genuine challengers to the throne. That leaves Real with a dilemma that will be difficult to swallow: beat Barça in next month’s Clásico and they will hand their neighbours a greater chance of winning a second title in three years.

The defeat also terminally punctured the “Zidane effect” at the Bernabéu. Unbeaten since he took over from Rafa Benítez, this was the Frenchman’s chance to outdo his predecessor and lay down a marker against a side of equal stature. As they have so often in recent season, Real fell short. As he has done so often in recent seasons, Simeone outwitted Real. Playing a solid 4-4-2 with four uncompromising midfielders, the Atlético manager recognized the midfield battle would be crucial. Zidane, as is his wont, failed to field a recognized defensive midfielder. Casemiro bossed the last derby but he has yet to convince his new boss of his worth. In the meantime, Toni Kroos will continue to be crowbarred into the anchor room despite not being a natural defensive player but for the range of passing he provides his place is assured.

In any case, Zidane has often extolled the virtues of defending as a team when not in possession and pressing high up the pitch, both of which Real did with enthusiasm from the outset. But Atlético are not the most miserly side in La Liga for nothing and rarely approach a game of this stature with a dainty lift of the petticoat and a probing toe. Toni Kroos was the first to get a taste of Atlético’s intent, and that was probably no accident. If the German is knocked out of his rhythm the rest of Real’s machinery often grinds to a halt. Atlético have been accused of toeing a fine line between fair and foul, but the challenges came thick and fast in the Bernabéu with Filipe Luis and Diego Godín both finding their way into the book in the first half, the latter for bringing down Benzema when the Frenchman had been put in by Ronaldo’s quick-thinking throw.

Chances were at a premium in the opening 45 minutes, Real managing one shot on target from a Ronaldo free kick and Atlético warming Keylor Navas’ hands through Griezmann and Koke.

The Portuguese went close after the restart, pulling an effort wide of Oblak’s far post and his branded “why always me” expression spoke volumes. Real were finding Atlético’s solid midfield four an immovable obstacle. It was evident that it would take a moment of magic or a defensive lapse for the deadlock to be broken and it was Real who provided the latter, standing off as Atlético swept forward and missing the presence of Filipe Luis on the overlap. Griezmann laid the ball off to the full back and then received it in a perfect shooting position while the assembled white shirts looked on impotently. A flash of the Frenchman’s left foot and Navas was picking the ball out of his net with a thunderous expression on his face.

A goal down, at home, and with his star striker having limped off, Zidane looked to his bench and selected Lucas Vazquez to try and turn the game around, which says a lot about Jesé’s current standing under the Frenchman. The striker did get on the pitch eventually but only after an 18-year-old youth player still registered to Real’s Juvenil A side. But Vázquez was a legitimate choice, the former canterano having provided five assists in 503 Liga minutes over the course of the season.

But trying to take a lead from Atlético, who had not scored in 321 minutes of football before Griezmann’s strike, is like trying to prise a bone from the maw of a particularly irritable hound. Zidane’s tactical machinations were met by Simeone with the introduction of Matías Kravevitter, a spit and sawdust defensive midfielder, as the Atlético boss put up the “closed for business” sign. Fernando Torres followed, making way for the quicker feet of Ángel Correa, a sign that Atlético were happy to sit back for the final 10 minutes and hit on the break, if at all. Real attempted to break through the red and white wall thrown up on the edge of the Atlético area, Danilo going close after initiating and finishing a break but dragging his shot wide of Oblak’s far post.

As the clock wound down and Real were wound further up, the desperation among the home side grew but despite 15 efforts, Oblak was forced into just two saves, both comfortable Ronaldo headers that didn’t oblige the keeper to move.

There was movement in the stands though as home fans began to file out with a few minutes remaining on the clock. The resignation was evident: Atlético have called time on Real’s title hopes.