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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Madrid derby: Key battle for Real and Atletico as both sides playing catch-up against Barcelona

Goals have been hard to come by for Atletico, while Real's famed 'BBC' are suffering poor ratings this season

Cristiano Ronaldo has not been among the goals in the Primera Liga this season. Francisco Seco / AP Photo
Cristiano Ronaldo has not been among the goals in the Primera Liga this season. Francisco Seco / AP Photo

Despite tickets costing between €70-496 (Dh302-2,144), the sold out sign went up for the first Madrid derby at the Wanda Metropolitano a week ago.

Just 900 of the 67,000 seats will go to Real Madrid fans for Saturday’s game, 80 per cent of whom would like to see Dani Ceballos, 21, play in his first derby.

Ceballos’s outstanding performance for Spain’s Under 21 team against Slovakia this week, in which the player who signed from Real Betis in July scored a hat-trick, has highlighted that he has been allowed only 284 minutes this season. Sergio Ramos has played 1,530 minutes.

Season tickets holders pay less that the high-quoted ticket prices, but it is not as though the game is between the first and second in the league.

Real Madrid and Atletico have met in two of the last three Uefa Champions League finals, but they are both struggling domestically this season.

‘Struggle’ might seem too strong a word for Atletico who are undefeated in 11 games and Madrid have won seven of their 11 matches. But it is not sufficient for either if they are to lift the title.

Madrid, in third, are eight points behind leaders Barcelona. Atletico, in fourth, are also on 23 points, and are struggling to score. Seven of Atletico’s 15 games so far have featured one or no goals.

Neither can afford to lose the game if they are to mount a serious title challenge, to go 11 points behind Barcelona. The Catalans face an awkward game at Leganes who they beat 5-1 last season, after less than a third of the season.

There is intrigue all over the pitch. Saul Niguez, the Atletico midfielder who always looks to pass forward with his magical left foot in a team built on the Primera Liga’s meanest defence of the past five years, had a miserable year at Madrid when he was 11.

He scored a bicycle kick in Atletico’s most memorable derby in recent years, a 4-0 win in 2015.

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Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone has done well against Zinedine Zidane, his opposite number at Real. Miguel Vidal / Reuters
Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone has done well against Zinedine Zidane, his opposite number at Real. Miguel Vidal / Reuters

Antoine Griezmann, who recently became a father, has not scored in seven matches and his Atletico future remains in perennial doubt, with Catalan media reporting that Barcelona had a €100m agreement to take the Frenchman to Camp Nou.

Manchester United and PSG have long been interested in the forward, who does not dampen the speculation and, regardless of his talent, will always be remembered for missing a key penalty in the Champions League final against Madrid.

Fans are far more certain that Atletico mainstays Gabi and Diego Godin, who have played in more Madrid derbies than any of the current crop from both teams, and have no intention of going anywhere.

Atletico’s side remains settled and they are likely to start with Jan Oblak in goal, then a defence of Juanfran, Savic, Godin and Felipe Luis or Lucas. Gabi and Saul will likely be the holding midfielders behind Carrasco, Thomas Partey and Koke, with Griezmann up front.

Seven teams have scored more than Atletico’s 16 in 11 games. But Real have their own problems upfront. Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema have only one league goal each so far this season. Valencia and Real Sociedad have both scored more goals than Real Madrid so far.

The game comes after a two-week international break where a Spain squad featuring eight players from the Madrid giants drew with Russia to finish 2017 with eight wins and two draws.

Attention shifts firmly towards club football for the next four months, with Madrid also featuring in the Fifa Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi next month. They will need to rediscover their form before then, hope their injury list shortens - their squad was slimmed down in the close season.

Their probable line up against Atletico is Kiko Casilla in goal, Nacho or Dani Carvajal at left back, Varane and Ramos as their settled central defensive pair, plus Marcelo at left back.

Toni Kroos, Luca Modric and the brilliant, balletic Isco are the likely midfield three with Benzema and Ronaldo up front.

The two managers Simeone and Zidane will make the final choices. They played against each other nine times as players, with Simeone on the winning side more often.

Zidane has taken his revenge as a manager, but his stumbling side remain in their most difficult period since he took control nearly two years ago.