Cristiano Ronaldo’s 45th goal of the season thwarted Atletico Madrid’s hopes of clinching a first derby double for 63 years as a pulsating match between the capital clubs finished 2-2 at the Vicente Calderon on Sunday night.
Ronaldo struck the leveller for Real Madrid with eight minutes to go after Koke and Gabi had responded to Karim Benzema’s third-minute opener to seemingly set Diego Simeone’s men on their way to an historic victory in an intense encounter on home soil.
Los Blancos were unbeaten in 14 visits to the Calderon and had won on their last eight visits but Atleti, who enjoyed a 1-0 victory at the Bernabeu earlier in the season, were targeting a first league ‘double’ over their city rivals for the first time since the 1950/51 season and three points that would have taken them joint top of La Liga.
Los Rojiblancos, who were also looking for revenge following their 5-0 aggregate Copa del Rey semi-final loss against Carlo Ancelotti’s side last month, were looking in good shape to do just that when Gabi’s 40-yard thunderbolt just before half-time gave the hosts a deserved lead and Diego Costa missed a host of good chances to extend their advantage in the second half.
The club from the Paseo de la Castellana arrived at the Calderon with a 27-match unbeaten record, however, and they showcased just why with Ronaldo’s late leveller which came thanks to an assist eventually credited to Gareth Bale. Substitute Dani Carvajal carved out the opportunity when he beat his man down the right and crossed for his Portuguese team-mate but Bale accidentally touched the ball and will be credited with his tenth assist of the campaign.
The former Tottenham Hotspur man was missing in action for most of the match but the assist puts him behind only Barcelona’s Cesc Fabregas, who has 12, in Europe’s top five leagues so far this season. He enjoyed arguably his best game since making the switch to the Spanish capital in Madrid’s 6-1 victory over Schalke in the Champions League on Wednesday night but struggled to recapture that form in his first start in a Madrid derby in La Liga.
As with Benzema and Ronaldo, Bale scored twice in Germany to make Madrid’s three-pronged attack one of the most feared in Europe, but he failed to show for the party in a blood-and-guts derby by the Manzanares river. There had been little love lost between the sides in their three previous encounters this season and there was little making up to do in a match that had been billed as a potential title decider. While there was little let-up in a contest that flowed at 100mph throughout, Bale was on the periphery and seemingly not set for the battle.
It was the Welshman’s sixth straight start since returning from a troublesome groin injury, his longest run of matches since joining the club owing to a run of niggling injuries. It was also the fifth time in those six matches that he’s managed 90 minutes, a statistic that will please Ancelotti and president Florentino Perez as Bale looks to get to 100 per cent match fitness ahead of the ‘business end’ of the season. His impact was minimal, however, with full-backs Felipe Luis and Juanfran comfortably dealing with his threat for the most part.
When Bale did get involved in the action his header late on was dealt with by Atleti goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and a neat back heel put Benzema away only for the linesman to wave his flag for offside. In a league that is generally played at a slower pace to the Premier League, this was Premier League intensity and more. Bale, who has settled nicely into Spanish football, seemed taken aback, despite featuring in the same stadium less than three weeks ago in a somewhat ‘dead’ rubber of a cup semi-final second leg.
El Derbi is no longer a foregone conclusion of Real Madrid dominance and although it may not quite be at the same level as El Clasico, it’s catching up. Simeone has made his side genuine title contenders and Sunday’s match had more resemblance to a high-octane Clasico contest than any other in recent years. Controversial decisions, off-the-ball incidents and missed chances were all part of the package - you could not take your eyes off the action.
Before the match it was the best defence in the league, in Atleti, against the best attack in the league, in Real, and the side with the best home record against the club with the greatest away return in La Liga so far this season. Victory for Atleti would have sent them back level with their neighbours on points and an expected victory for Barcelona against Almeria just a few hour later would have seen all three tied back at the top.
There were high expectations and, unlike Atleti’s home clash against Barcelona in January, which finished 0-0, those expectations were met.
Diego Costa, who is expected to make his controversial international debut for Spain in a friendly against Italy at the same stadium on Wednesday, was central to plenty of the action and felt he should have had two penalty decisions go his way. The first in the tenth minute when Sergio Ramos appeared to fell the striker inside the box and the second after the break when he went down under a challenge from Alvaro Arbeloa. The Brazilian-born forward missed a couple of good chances, too, and the battle between him and Madrid defenders Ramos and Pepe proved an enthralling sub-plot to the match, sometimes spilling over.
As with the recent cup meeting, where Ronaldo scored inside seven minutes to all-but end the contest, the visitors made a rampant start with Benzema tapping in Di Maria’s brilliant cross after just three minutes. Instead of subduing the home crowd it only acted to light the touch paper and set-up one of the best 90 minutes in La Liga this campaign.
Los Blancos had the best of the opening ten minutes but Atleti, driven by Simeone, battled away as Atleti do and deserved their half-time advantage. Brilliant work by Arda Turan pulled Fabio Coentrao out of position midway through the first half and the Turkish international put Koke in for the leveller. After the unwanted, but not unexpected, off-the-ball incidents Gabi scored a goal fitting of the occasion and at the perfect time for the hosts. With almost the last kick of an enthralling opening 45 minutes the midfielder let rip with a 40-yard shot that flew into the back of the goal and sent the Calderon crazy. As good a strike as it was, Madrid goalkeeper Diego Lopez will look back and know he could have done better.
That momentum continued into the second half for the hosts with Costa striking a low free-kick into the arms of Lopez before firing a good chance wide under pressure from Pepe as Atleti looked to get some breathing space. That didn’t come, and as the minutes ticked over Ancelotti’s side grew more into the game and grabbed their leveller through Ronaldo in his first league game back following a three-match suspension. The goal saw him overtake Zlatan Ibrahimovic as the top-scorer in Europe’s big leagues.
More than anyone the result will have suited Barcelona but the non-stop entertainment has put El Derbi firmly back on the list of ‘must watches’. La Liga is not just about El Clasico anymore.