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02 Mar 2018

Why Barcelona vs Atletico Madrid is bigger than El Clasico this season

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Things go wrong for Real

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Barcelona renewed

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The rise of a worthy rival

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Showdown

(Photo credit: Carlos Delgado)

It was 1959, the semi-final of European Cup (later to become the UEFA Champions League). Real Madrid, led by the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano, humiliated Atletico Madrid, both in result and dominance of play. 

Since then, things have only got worse.

A defeat in the semifinal in 2016/17, in the quarterfinal in 2014/15 and twice in the final in 2013/14 and 2015/16 - Real Madrid have dominated their cross-city rivals in Europe for decades. 

Their domestic history tells a similar story. Between 1999 and 2013, a period two years longer than the gap between Real's Novena and Decima, Atletico Madrid failed to secure a victory against their neighbours in Madrid. 14 years of disappointment, of agony, of being scorned.   

For Atletico fans, things hit  rock bottom when, in 2011, Real Madrid's notorious Ultra Sur unfurled a mighty banner declaring: 'Wanted: A worthy rival for decent derby'.

Ironically, in the intervening period, it has become Atletico Madrid who have become the more worthy rival in the Madrid derby. 

Things go wrong for Real

Real Madrid, a club famously synonymous to exorbitantly demanding fans and success, had a great season last year. With their iconic coach Zinedine Zidane lifting five trophies, Real only missed out on the Copa del Rey. 

Atletico Madrid, on the other hand, had nothing to celebrate. At this point in time, nothing could have suggested the fact that things were about to take a drastic turn.

At the beginning of this season, Real Madrid thrashed Barcelona 5-1 on aggregate in Supercopa de Espana, leading Gerard Pique to say that, for the first time in his illustrious career he "felt inferior to Real Madrid". 

However, the world of football is by no means a static entity. The highest of heights that Real Madrid had touched were about to replaced by hardest of falls. By Christmas break, Real already had dropped out of the league running. 

A twist of fate also saw Real Madrid crashed out of Copa del Rey at the hands of another Madrid based team: Leganes. 

By February, their only hope to save what has been a dreadful season was the Champions League - a competition they love. Whilst it wouldn't come as a surprise if they lift the famous big ears once again, it is starting to look less and less likely.

Barcelona renewed

Across the country, Real Madrid's historical rivals Barcelona have yet to taste a defeat in La Liga this season. 

The start of the 2017/18 campaign has been outstanding for new manager Ernesto Valverde. With only one defeat, in a two-legged tie they went on to win against the local rivals Espanyol, Barcelona are already in the final of Copa del Rey: their fourth in a row, having won the previous three. 

In La Liga, Barcelona's form stood in marked contrast to their rivals in Madrid. Whilst the first El Clasico is always anticipated as the match to look forward to in the first half of the season, Real Madrid's struggles took the sheen off it somewhat. 

As a result, the story of the season ended before it even begun: Barcelona helping Real Madrid to a 3-0 defeat and taking the initiative in the competition.

The rise of a worthy rival

Whilst the power shifted between the two grandees of Spanish football, Atletico Madrid quietly continued their search for a resurgence. 

It came in January 2018. The start of the new year brought a new spirit in the team in the form of an old face - Diego Costa. 

With the Brazilian back, Antoine Griezmann has been revivified and the results have reflected that: whilst Atletico Madrid's start to 2018 seemed less productive than Barcelona, Simeone's side have scored 30 goals in 14 matches since January 2018 compared to 34 goals in 25 matches before that. 

Slowly but surely, then, Atletico Madrid have brought themselves back into contention in the league. After Barcelona drew in Estadio Gran Canaria this week, Atletico now find themselves a mere five points off the top of La Liga with their match against the Blaugrana this weekend giving them a chance of reducing this difference to two points.

Atletico's renaissance has not simply been reliant on goal-scoring, though. They have only conceded 11 goals so far this season with no one in the league conceding fewer. So far, Sevilla and Girona are the only sides to score two goals against them in the league.

Showdown

Since the start of the new year, Barcelona have seen something of a dip in form. Although they have managed to get the results, the performance charts have reached a sinusoidal crest.

Whilst the signing of Phillipe Coutinho and the inclusion of Ousmane Dembele have meant more attacking firepower in Camp Nou, Barcelona's attacking flair seems to have taken a hit. 

Their opponents on Sunday are at the opposite end of the curve. Since Diego Costa has arrived, he has already scored nine goals and, with his addition in the team, Atletico only require 2.4 shots per goal since his arrival, a marked reduction. 

With Real Madrid completely out of the title equation, Atletico Madrid will fight for the La Liga title in Barcelona. With the five points gap be reduced to only two and an El Clasico yet to come, this could be Atletico's chance. 

Who will come out on top in Sunday's game? Let us know in the comment section.