MADRID — The Spanish capital’s biggest derby hasn’t looked this lopsided in years.
Zinedine Zidane has Real Madrid playing like a winner again for the first time since he started his second stint as coach midway through last season.
Atletico Madrid, in contrast, is at its lowest moment since Diego Simeone transformed the team into a challenger after his arrival eight years ago.
Real Madrid has gone 20 straight games without a loss, including a victory over Atletico in a penalty shootout in the Spanish Super Cup final on Jan. 12. The 4-0 win at second-tier club Zaragoza in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday was the team’s seventh win in a row since the winter break.
Madrid will host Atletico on Saturday at the Santiago Bernabeu looking to increase its three-point lead over defending champion Barcelona, which hosts Levante on Sunday.
Zidane led Madrid to an unprecedented three consecutive Champions League titles before stepping down after the 2017-18 season. He returned midway through the next season with the team in tatters after two coaches failed to add to his successes. Without top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo, Madrid continued to have its ups and downs under Zidane until it finally started to click at the start of this year.
“We are doing well and we want to keep that up. Each game is a test for us,” Zidane said after Wednesday’s victory. “We kept another clean sheet at a tough ground. One of our strengths is that gritty defending.”
Zidane has bolstered Madrid’s defense by playing Ferland Mendy at left back over long-time starter Marcelo. Mendy, who arrived to the club in the offseason, does not have Marcelo’s passing or scoring ability, but he is a much more vigilant and quicker defender.
Zidane also appears to have retooled the mentality of a group that for years relied upon Ronaldo to provide its punch. Now the team is much more versatile, and with a very deep bench, especially in the midfield. Zidane has Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, young standout Federico Valverde, Casemiro, Francisco “Isco” Alarcon and James Rodriguez to choose from.
The team is playing well without its top two stars contributing very much. Gareth Bale rarely plays because of injury or simply because Zidane doesn’t need him, while Eden Hazard has been limited by injuries since joining from Chelsea. In their place, young Brazilians Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior have been able to grow into real threats alongside Karim Benzema.
“I can only say that we are working well,” Zidane said. “I see many positive things about the team, but we haven’t won anything yet and there is a long way to go. In the derby we will have to play well again.”
Atletico hadn’t beaten Madrid since 1999 when Simeone took over in December 2011. The Argentine ended that drought by downing Madrid in the 2013 Copa del Rey final, Jose Mourinho’s last match in charge. Atletico has since been an equal opponent. Despite losing two Champions League finals to Madrid, Atletico hasn’t lost at its stadium in the league in six seasons.
Atletico, however, is 10 points behind Madrid in fifth place, behind Sevilla and Getafe. It must beat Madrid to have any chance of turning around its league campaign.
The team will make the trip across the city without several important players and with its morale bruised after not winning in four straight games, including a humiliating exit to a third-division club in the Copa del Rey.
Simeone will most likely not be able to count on young Portugal forward Joao Felix, the club’s top signing from the offseason, who has a muscle injury in his right leg. Captain Jorge “Koke” Resurreccion is injured and will also likely miss the match, along with central defender Jose Gimenez and striker Diego Costa.
England right back Kieran Trippier could recover in time from injury. Trippier has been one Simeone’s best players in his first campaign with the team.