On Wednesday, Real Madrid cruised past a listless Valencia side, winning 3-1 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to advance to Sunday’s final at 1 p.m Eastern.
A day later, the match-up between Atlético Madrid and Barcelona was far more entertaining, particularly after halftime. Instead of rattling off a summary of everything that happened in Atleti’s 3-2 win, which included five goals, eight yellow cards and several massive momentum shifts, here are the highlights:
Now, we get the second-best rivalry in Spain behind El Clásico on Sunday. Atleti-RM, however, is always extremely compelling, and typically even more salty, in its own right.
We’ll spend the majority of this post on what to expect out of the Madrid rivals this weekend, but first, let’s talk Barcelona.
Is it time for the Catalans to oust Ernesto Valverde?
On the surface, the question seems ridiculous, particularly if you only watched Thursday’s game from around the 50th through the 60th minute. Barcelona are also in first place in La Liga and are as much of a Champions League favorite as anyone at +500. Only Manchester City (+425) and Liverpool (+450) have shorter odds.
But in games away from home and/or with a trophy at stake, Barcelona is now 0-for-way-too-many over the last few years when you consider the talent on the roster. It’s not just the humiliating meltdowns in the Champions League in ’18 (AS Roma) and ’19 (Liverpool). Barcelona also lost a game it was heavily favored to win against Valencia in last year’s Copa del Rey final.
And now this, a disappointing L, no matter how much you think of the Supercopa, on the heels of an inexcusable draw at last-place Espanyol last weekend.
Bad breaks were certainly a factor vs. Los Rojiblancos on Thursday. In fact, there’s a good case they should have been up 4-1 at one point. After a Lionel Messi goal was taken off the board due to a questionable handball, another score was called off because Arturo Vidal was offside by a millimeter. Regardless, this team has too many world-class players to keep up coming short in big games.
Valverde’s job appeared to be in jeopardy late last season after the catastrophe at Anfield, and he’s in a tenuous spot again. It’d be a bold move to sack him in January with the club in first place, but the case that this team’s biggest weakness is its manager keeps growing stronger.
Atleti eyes another upset
Atlético was +280 going into the win over Barcelona, and they’re a big underdog (+235) again vs. Zinedine Zidane’s squad (+123). RM are in good form, but that line seems a little disrespectful considering what Atleti just pulled off.
Diego Simeone’s team may only have 22 goals through 19 La Liga games, but it is suddenly red-hot, at least by its standards. In their last five games (three in La Liga and one each in the Champions League and Supercopa), Atleti have scored 11 goals.
The thriller on Thursday against Barcelona was vintage Simeone and Co., as Barcelona owned a 72-28 advantage in possession and out-shot Atlético 16-6. But all six of Atleti’s shots were on target, and they made them count. Both the equalizer-creating penalty by Vitolo – which Álvaro Morata stepped up and buried — and the game-winner by Ángel Correa came on textbook counters when Barcelona had just about everyone in front of the ball.
Now we get to see whether they can replicate that success vs. their crosstown rivals. With Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale presumably unavailable again after missing the Valencia match, Atleti is much closer to full strength.
But Los Blancos didn’t miss either forward on Wednesday, as Toni Kroos, Isco and Luka Modric all scored. Atleti will never be a pushover defensively, but surrendered a ton of opportunities to Barcelona, meaning RM should get some looks.
So who gets those opportunities? Luka Jovic was up top in Zidane’s 4-3-2-1 vs. Valencia, but his season-long inability to make an impact continued. Will one or both of young Brazilians Rodrygo and Vinicius get a chance on Sunday? Based on the way they’ve taken advantage of their opportunities to this point – especially Rodrygo – you’d have to imagine so.
Both these teams have keepers playing incredible right now. So don’t expect either of the two squads tied for the stingiest in La Liga (they’ve both allowed 12 goals through 19 games) to score three goals again. And also don’t expect Atleti’s Jan Oblak to wander out of position on a corner. Yes, that’s a dig at you, Valencia!
🇩🇪 This view of Toni Kroos’ corner kick goal against Valencia yesterday is absolutely brilliant. Perfection from the German maestro. 😍😱 pic.twitter.com/vvTCyu5BuH
— FutbolBible (@FutbolBible) January 9, 2020
But RM’s midfield and back line have looked stout enough in recent weeks that I expect them to largely stifle Atleti en route to a hard-fought 2-1 win, with Isco heavily involved in one or both goals.