Atletico Madrid’s La Liga challenge will not succeed or fail on Saturday but end a decade-long drought by beating Barcelona and they could justifiably become favourites for the title.
A first league victory over Barca since 2010 would put Atletico nine points clear of their opponents and extend an impressive unbeaten run in the league to 24 matches.
They have played seven games so far this season, scoring 17 goals while conceding only two.
A convincing start, spearheaded by a flourishing Joao Felix and the invigorated Luis Suarez, has generated optimism but a real sense of opportunity has sprouted from the imperfections of their rivals.
Real Madrid have already lost twice, with Zinedine Zidane under pressure and all the guile and resilience that won them the title in July seemingly now absent four months later.
Barcelona are trying to begin again under Ronald Koeman but the teething problems that have them sitting eighth ahead of the trip to the Wanda Metropolitano are unlikely to be resolved soon, particularly with the upheaval of presidential elections to come in January.
Two teams at what feels like the end of two hugely successful cycles has created an opening for Atletico, whose own transition should be further along after their new crop proved raw last season but looks readier to capitalise this term.
The most obvious example of maturity is Felix, the 21-year-old who struggled to live up to expectations in his first year but has arguably been La Liga’s most influential player at this early stage of his second.
It is a great pity that Suarez, infected by coronavirus, will not face Barcelona, the club that so clumsily cast him aside in the summer.
But if Atletico are to win the title this season, it is likely to be with Felix as the driving force.
The Portuguese has already equalled the nine goals and assists he managed last season, with his instinctive, creative talents helping to unlock Atletico’s previously stodgy attack.
“He’s always had great moments for us but what he has now is consistency,” said coach Diego Simeone last month. “It’s a big year for him and hopefully he’ll keep getting better.”
Felix’s next challenge is to define games like this one and to give Simeone’s side even just a taste of the lethal touch in this fixture that Lionel Messi has given Barcelona.
Simeone was left applauding when Messi’s superb strike into the corner decided the contest at the Wanda Metropolitano last year, his 31st goal in 40 games against Atletico.
Messi is the thorn in Simeone’s side but the 33-year-old has not been his scintillating self in recent weeks, still weighed down perhaps by his blocked attempt to leave last summer.
There could be a lack of freshness in his legs too this weekend, given the Argentinian only finished playing 90 minutes against Peru in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Barca will also be missing Ansu Fati and Sergio Busquets, both of them injured.
Even without Suarez, Atletico may feel then like the time is now to overcome their Catalan jinx, with the reward in the table potentially significant if a depleted Real Madrid also stumble away at Villarreal a few hours earlier.
Madrid’s defensive problems will not be helped by injuries to Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane while Villarreal are flying high in second, following four victories on the bounce.
But the benefits to Atletico in terms of belief could be even more valuable than places jumped or gaps extended, with major rivals vulnerable and a league title there for taking.
Fixtures (times GMT)
Osasuna v Huesca (2000)
Levante v Elche (1300), Villarreal v Real Madrid (1515), Sevilla v Celta Vigo (1730), Atletico Madrid v Barcelona (2000)
Eibar v Getafe (1300), Cadiz v Real Sociedad (1515), Granada v Real Valladolid (1730), Alaves v Valencia (2000)
Real Madrid duo of Eden Hazard and Casemiro have tested positive for COVID-19 after being among the group of players and staff tested at Valdebebas on Friday morning.
The club released a statement in this regard which read
“Real Madrid C.F. informs that our players, Casemiro and Eden Hazard, have tested positive in the COVID-19 tests undertaken yesterday, Friday, in the morning.”
“All of the other first-team players and coaching staff, as well as the club employees who work directly with the squad tested negative in yesterday’s tests. Meanwhile, all of them, apart from Casemiro and Hazard, once again tested negative in the antigen tests taken this morning.” the message further read.
Both the players will go into self-isolation at home and complete their quarantine period.
Hazard and Casemiro are expected to miss the La Liga encounter against Valencia on Sunday.
Real Madrid thwarted a second-half comeback from Inter Milan to win 3-2 on Tuesday and give their Champions League bid lift-off in Group B.
Madrid’s 19-year-old Brazilian Rodrygo came off the bench to score the winner at the empty Alfredo di Stefano stadium, where Inter threatened a remarkable turnaround after drawing level from two goals down.
Lautaro Martinez and Ivan Perisic gave Inter hope of victory after Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos had put Madrid in command, Ramos heading in a second after half an hour for his 100th Real Madrid goal.
But Rodrygo had the last word, his cool finish in the 80th minute earning Zinedine Zidane’s side their first win to leave Inter with a mountain to climb if they are to make the last 16.
These teams were expected to fight for the top two spots in the group but both came into this game on the back of stumbling starts, Inter taking two points and Madrid just one from opening games against Borussia Moenchengladbach and Shakhtar Donetsk.
Neither coach could afford another slip-up either after a bumpy few weeks. Antonio Conte’s Inter have now won only one of their last seven games while Madrid appear to have turned a corner following consecutive losses last month.
The lively Perisic replaced the injured Romelu Lukaku up front for Inter and Eden Hazard started for the second time this season for Madrid. The Belgian delivered only in glimpses before being taken off shortly after the hour.
Inter’s right-back Achraf Hakimi also went up against the club that sold him for 40 million euros in July and although he was dangerous going forward, it was his poor backpass that led to Benzema’s opening goal.
Madrid were the stronger side in the first half but conceded chances and were vulnerable on the break.
Marco Asensio went close after a cutback from Hazard before two Inter counters saw Nicolo Barella hit the crossbar and Martinez force a save from Thibaut Courtois.
Fede Valverde should have scored but scuffed a half-volleyed finish after a neat header from Benzema, who then did score, capitalizing on Hakimi’s error to round the goalkeeper and slot home.
When Ramos headed in Toni Kroos’ corner in the 33rd minute, Madrid looked comfortable but in the 35th they let Inter back in, a sumptuous flicked backheel from Barella spinning into the path of Lautaro, who made no mistake.
Hazard went off just after the hour, with Madrid less dominant and Inter’s confidence growing.
They equalized with the first real chance of the half as Perisic darted onto Martinez’s header and finished into the far corner.
The game was in the balance. Lautaro curled over and Perisic fired wide, with Inter even looking the more likely to grab a winner.
But it was Madrid who struck again, the two substitutes combining on the break as Vinicius Junior sped clear on the left and crossed to Rodrygo on the right, his fellow Brazilian controlling and sweeping in.
Real Madrid averted a crisis in the best possible way on Saturday by beating Barcelona 3-1 in the first empty Clasico, landing an early blow in La Liga’s title race.
Barca had the chance to inflict a third consecutive defeat on their rivals and increase the pressure on Zinedine Zidane.
Instead, Madrid’s win earns them a six-point lead over the Catalans, having played one game more.
Sergio Ramos’ penalty and a late Luka Modric goal finished off Barcelona after Federico Valverde and Ansu Fati had traded early strikes in a frantic game that defied those expecting further evidence of two heavyweights in decline.
Barcelona might feel hard done by, especially as Ramos’ penalty was awarded after a check by VAR and a hugely exaggerated fall by Madrid’s captain after Clement Lenglet tugged his shirt.
But aside from an impressive spell in the first half, when an inspired Lionel Messi threatened to win the game on his own, Madrid were dominant for longer spells and pulled away when it mattered.
This was Ronald Koeman’s first Clasico as Barcelona coach and some of the pressure Zidane would have felt from a loss is now transferred to the Dutchman, who has overseen only three wins from his first six games in charge.
Barcelona face Juventus on Wednesday in the Champions League, without the suspended Gerard Pique.
Every Barca set-back is now seen through the lens of Messi’s future too. The Argentinian, who failed in his attempt to leave last summer, has still to score from open play this season.
Mundo Deportivo had declared the match “The least Clasico of Clasicos” on its front page on Saturday morning.
The coronavirus pandemic meant the biggest football stadium in Europe was silent for the game that La Liga president Javier Tebas had claimed is “still the biggest football match in the world”.
In the previous week, Real Madrid had lost to Shakhtar Donestsk and newly promoted Cadiz, while Barcelona were beaten by Getafe last weekend
Yet a dip in quality does not have to mean a drop in drama and any doubts about the thrill of this fixture were answered in eight minutes, as both teams had scored.
Madrid made the start they dreamed of when Karim Benzema drifted deep into the right channel and was allowed to turn, with the sprinting Valverde going beyond him.
Valverde pierced the gap before lifting a curved shot past Neto and into the far corner.
Madrid celebrated as if their confidence had been reborn, but within three minutes, Barcelona were level.
Messi, from almost left-back, chipped a ball over the top freeing Jordi Alba who fired into the front post where Fati had nipped ahead of Ramos and turned in.
It was fast and open for the rest of the half, with Messi enjoying a golden spell. He glided past Casemiro and then swerved around Ramos, but onto his right foot, the finish stabbed into Thibaut Courtois at the near post.
Benzema should have scored too. Madrid finished the stronger before half-time but Barca were better after. Fati flashed just wide and Philippe Coutinho missed a free header at the back post.
Their momentum was checked by Lenglet’s error, a tug in the box clear enough that Ramos’ shirt was stretched, even if the fall was comically exaggerated. Referee Juan Martinez checked the monitor. Ramos found the corner.
Barca wanted a penalty themselves when Ramos booted a ball into team-mate Raphael Varane’s arm, but this time there was no whistle.
Ramos and Valverde both could have made it three in the final minutes before substitute Modric did, finishing beautifully after Neto rushed out.
Sergio Ramos scored a late penalty as Real Madrid came from behind to scrape a 3-2 win against 10-man Real Betis, their first La Liga victory of the season.
Betis were ahead at half-time after two goals in two minutes from Aissa Mandi and William Carvalho overturned Fede Valverde’s opener for the reigning champions.
But Betis defender Emerson, who is on loan from Barcelona, endured a nightmare start to the second half by scoring an own-goal and then being sent off for knocking over Luka Jovic after the striker had been sent clear.
VAR again intervened in Madrid’s favour in the 82nd minute as Marc Bartra was adjudged to have cleared with his arm, leaving Ramos to chip in the winning penalty.
Betis were fuming at referee Ricard de Burgos at full-time and while the red card seemed fair, they were unlucky to concede the penalty, with Bartra seemingly nudged into the ball by Madrid’s Borja Mayoral.
Madrid, though, breathed a sigh of relief, their opening win secured having kicked off the season with a goalless draw away at Real Sociedad last weekend.
“I’m not getting into the referees,” said Zidane. “We suffered of course but in the end we got the three points.”
Ramos converting from the spot felt familiar after his three penalties during Madrid’s run to the title last term but this was an uncharacteristically sloppy defensive display from Zinedine Zidane’s side.
It was the first time they had conceded twice in the first half of a league match since Zidane returned as coach 18 months ago and it would have cost them had their opponents been less generous.
Defeat for Betis ends what had been a perfect start under new coach Manuel Pellegrini, after two wins out of two against Alaves and Real Valladolid.
“From Madrid’s first goal to the end of the first half we were much superior,” said Mandi. “But we weren’t able to get a clean sheet in the second half.”
Victory for Madrid puts early pressure on Barcelona, who begin with Lionel Messi back in the fold at home to Villarreal on Sunday. Atletico Madrid also play their first game on Sunday at home to Granada.
Eden Hazard was still absent in Seville, not even included on the bench as Zidane continues to insist the Belgian regain full fitness before returning to action.
Jovic was given a rare start up front but the Serb missed a good chance before going off in the second half and it would not be a surprise if he departed before the end of the transfer window.
Benzema made Madrid’s opener, refusing to give in down the right, where he wriggled into space and crossed for Valverde to fire in at the near post.
Ramos should have made it two but lashed wide from eight yards out and then Betis found their rhythm, exerting more and more pressure as the half wore on.
They equalised when Mandi climbed above Casemiro to head in a cross from the excellent Sergio Canales, who then initiated a second two minutes later, spreading left to Nabil Fekir, who laid off for Carvalho to power through and drive home.
But Madrid were level three minutes after the restart as Emerson poked Carvajal’s cross into his own net and then the Betis defender was sent off, ajudged to have bundled into the back of Jovic, who had been put through by Benzema.
Ramos bent the free-kick wide, Benzema feathered past the post and substitute Borja scuffed a finish, only for De Burgos to review and decide the stumbling Bartra had diverted the ball away with his arm. Ramos made no mistake.
Valencia’s poor start to the season under new coach Javi Gracia continued as they were held earlier to a 1-1 draw by newly-promoted Huesca. Real Sociedad eased past Elche 3-0 while it finished goalless between Alaves and Getafe.