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Real Madrid can land killer blow in La Liga title race with derby victory over Atletico

4:00 PM MYT 12/12/2021
Karim Benzema, Real Madrid 2021-22
The league title is effectively on the line this Sunday with Atletico struggling to keep pace and Barcelona languishing in midtable

Real Madrid fans might be thinking about dusting off the old banner. “Wanted,” it read. “A worthy rival for a decent derby.”

They taunted Atletico Madrid with that jibe 10 years ago at Santiago Bernabeu, but got more than they bargained for, with Atletico winning the league title twice in the following decade, to Madrid’s three titles.

Madrid also were run agonisingly close by Atletico in the 2014 and 2016 Champions League finals, although they eventually triumphed in extra-time and on penalties respectively, aggrandising their European legend at the expense and torture of their rivals.

Atletico come into Sunday’s Madrid derby as reigning champions, but for the first time since that banner was displayed, their more illustrious neighbours are comfortably the most dominant team in Spain, seemingly without ‘worthy’ opposition.

Real Madrid can prove that by striking a killer blow not just against Atletico on Sunday night, but also to La Liga’s wilting title race.

Carlo Ancelotti’s side have been head and shoulders above the rest so far this season and if they defeat the visitors they will be in a truly commanding position before even reaching the halfway stage.

Vinicius Junior will receive his player of the month award before the game and the Brazilian has been a key figure in Madrid’s surge to the top of the table. If he, and the returning Karim Benzema, the division’s two top goalscorers, can dispatch their city rivals they will be 13 points ahead after 17 matches, Atletico having played one fewer.

Although Sevilla and Real Betis are closer, few believe the Andalusians have it in them to go the distance. The former last won the league in 1946, and the latter in 1935. 



Madrid’s eternal rivals, Barcelona, are languishing in seventh and, even if they beat Osasuna on Sunday, would still be 16 points off the top if Los Blancos defeat Atletico.

The vast differences between the title contenders - if that word is even appropriate - has been exposed in the Champions League.

After a shock defeat by minnows Sheriff in their opening match, Madrid stormed to five wins from five in their remaining games to top Group D. That stunning anomaly was followed by a defeat by Espanyol in La Liga, then a period of self-reflection, and Ancelotti’s men have not looked back since.

They beat Barcelona in the Camp Nou Clasico and are on a run of nine straight wins across all competitions. They are the only Spanish team currently able to claim they can compete with Europe’s elite.

"We will have three points, then there will be other games, other moments, other dynamics in the season. I don't want to put more pressure on this game," said Ancelotti,  although he could not deny Madrid's superiority to date. 

"We've shown we've done better than the other teams up to today. That is what has happened. If the league ended today, it'd be done, but there are six months to go. We've been the best so far but what concerns us is the future, not the past."


Atletico Madrid, by contrast, scraped through to the last 16 by the skin of their teeth, in a nerve-wracking clash against Porto.

Diego Simeone’s side are in an identity crisis, unsure of whether they are a team that should be playing attractive football and dominating games, or revelling in the underdog role they have made their own for so long. In the final 30 minutes against Porto they indulged in football’s dark arts and buckled in for the fight and it worked to great effect.

Even though with the resources at their disposal - Luis Suarez, Joao Felix, Antoine Griezmann, Yannick Carrasco, Matheus Cunha, to name but a few - they have skilful, talented attackers, perhaps they would be better advised to play in their old way at the Bernabeu, given the league season is at stake.

Elsewhere Sevilla embarrassed themselves in a group they should have won, finishing behind Lille and RB Salzburg to drop into the Europa League, while Barcelona will play in that competition for the first time since it was rebranded, scoring just two goals in the Champions League group phase.

The Catalans’ situation is so bad they might actually prefer their arch-rivals to win the derby, just so they have a greater chance of catching Atletico to finish in the top four.

Anyone else with interest in La Liga, though, will hope Simeone’s side can get a big result to keep the title race alive, if not kicking.

"We always go game by game," said Simeone. "And that will never change. They know we are competitive and we won't give them an easy game." 

The one hope Madrid’s rivals have is that Ancelotti has not rotated his starting lineup much and they could tire in the months ahead. For that to matter, the pack have to stay in touching distance, and so Atletico have a lot of hopes riding on them.