The league derby against Atletico Madrid marked a turning point for Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid.
The disappointing home defeat in February was the last time Madrid lost a game in the league. It rebounded from that 1-0 defeat at the Santiago Bernabeu by going on a streak that culminated with the club lifting the Champions League trophy – in a final against Atletico – and contending for the league title until the very end.
Madrid won 12 straight after the loss, erasing 11 points off Barcelona’s lead and finishing only one point from the title.
This time, Madrid is just looking to keep its momentum when it plays city rival Atletico on Saturday.
Madrid arrives at the derby in a much better position than previously, holding a two-point lead over Barcelona and a six-point advantage over Diego Simeone’s Atletico, which needs the victory to avoid losing more ground to the rivals. Atletico led the league until losing two of its last three games to drop to fourth in the standings.
Atletico has won four league games in a row at the Vicente Calderon stadium, but it will be facing a Madrid team that has thrived away from the Bernabeu, having scored 20 goals in its last four away games in all competitions.
Madrid isn’t getting over-confident, however.
“The next game will be a tricky one, like they always are against Atletico,” Real Madrid defender Nacho Fernandez said.
Madrid’s only loss since the league game against Atletico last season was at Wolfsburg in the Champions League in April. It remains unbeaten since then, with 21 wins and seven draws in all competitions. It has won four straight in the league and is the only team in the top tier not to have lost this season.
Succeeding at the Calderon may be especially difficult this time as Zidane has been dealing with injuries to some of the team’s top forwards. Alvaro Morata, who scored three goals in his last three games with Madrid, is out because of a hamstring injury sustained with Spain’s national team, and it remains unclear if Karim Benzema will overcome a lingering hip problem.
The coach may have to change the team up front, or use some of his reserve players to fill the attack along with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. Among Zidane’s options on offense are Lucas Vazquez and youngster Mariano Diaz.
Other Madrid players uncertain to start Saturday because of injuries include defender Pepe and defensive midfielder Casemiro. In better news for Zidane, midfielder Luka Modric will likely make his first start since undergoing a surgical procedure on his knee almost two months ago, and defender Sergio Ramos also is expected to play after his own knee problems. Midfielder Tony Kroos remains sidelined because of a foot injury.
Simeone, meanwhile, still doesn’t know if he will be able to count on forward Antoine Griezmann, who is nursing a knock to his left foot sustained with France’s national team in a World Cup qualifier last week. The forward has a good chance of playing after tests early in the week ruled out a serious injury.
Madrid and Atletico drew 1-1 the last time they met at the Calderon. Madrid beat its city rival in a penalty shootout in the Champions League final in Milan.
Barcelona hosts Malaga on Saturday, while third-placed Villarreal plays at Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.