Super Cup in Saudi Arabia starts sequence of crunch Madrid derbies

Defensive issues and match officials worry Real after September's 3-1 defeat to Atletico

Carlo Ancelotti, the head coach of Real Madrid, has decisions to make ahead of the Super Cup, particularly over his goalkeeper. Getty Images
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You can take a Madrid derby 3,000 miles away from the capital of Spain, but no distance will ever blunt its sharp edge. No sooner had the identity of the referee taking charge of Wednesday’s Super Cup semi-final, Real versus Atletico, been revealed than the snarling and the grumbling began.

He is Javier Alberoja Rojas and he arrived in Riyadh for the opening fixture of the three-match event to a familiar chorus of scepticism from Real Madrid’s own club TV channel, where scrutiny of refereeing decisions makes up an ever greater proportion of the programming.

Alberoja Rojas would have anticipated as much. Real supporters and several senior figures within the club complained long and loud about his officiating after they lost 3-1 at Atletico in late September, their sole defeat so far in a season where they hold the leadership of La Liga at the midway stage and have won six out of six in the Champions League group phase.

The gripes reveal more about the complainants than the referee, who is perceived to have allowed Atletico too much leeway in isolated moments of robustness during the last derby. But Alberoja Rojas was not the weak point in that fixture. Real’s lax marking and difficulties defending crosses were.

Atletico’s Alvaro Morata, the target man centre-forward who began his much-travelled career at Real, scored twice, and Antoine Griezmann made it three headed goals to sink their local rivals.

If the manner of that loss raised concerns for Real head coach Carlo Ancelotti, the injury issues that have afflicted his squad pose further questions for Real against the one side who have worked out how to beat them in 2023/24.

The season began with the major setback of long-term injury to goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, and while Real quickly signed Kepa Arrizabalaga on loan from Chelsea to cover Courtois’ absence, the habit of sharing and rotating keeping duties between Kepa and Andriy Lunin hints at a longing for Courtois’s undisputed authority. Ancelotti would not reveal which of his fit goalkeepers will start on Wednesday.

He is short of senior defenders, too, to marshal Morata’s aerial threat, Greizemann’s invention and Atletico’s pace on the counter-attack.

First-choice centre-back Eder Militao was ruled out for several months early in the season and last month David Alaba, the most worldly of Madrid’s central defenders, went under the surgeon’s knife to repair a similar cruciate ligament problem as Courtois and Militao’s.

Also missing from the expedition to Riyadh is Lucas Vazquez, the all-rounder who provides cover at full-back. The overall deficit of experience may yet push Real into signing a defender in the January transfer window.

The fact that, as of Tuesday, there is now the sudden prospect of Atletico severely denting their neighbours’ hopes in three different competitions in the space of a month unsettles Ancelotti a little further.

The draw for the last 16 of the Copa del Rey, Spain’s main domestic cup competition, has paired the two biggest Madrid clubs. They will meet at Atletico’s Metropolitano stadium eight days after the Riyadh showdown sends one of them through to Sunday’s Super Cup final against either Barcelona or Osasuna.

And there’s more in this intense, suffocating series of derbies. The second Real-Atletico clash of the La Liga season is scheduled for February 3, by which time Real could very plausibly be playing catch-up in the table. Their lead is currently held jointly with Girona.

The challenge for Real is to both avenge the autumn defeat to Atletico and push past them in pursuit of a clean sweep of trophies. “It’s a motivation,” said Fede Valverde, part of Madrid’s Super Cup winning sides in 2020 and 2022, “three derbies and the chance to show we can compete for several titles.

“There’s a cup at stake here and in the Copa del Rey and the league match will show what each team is going to be fighting for in La Liga.”

On current standings, Atletico are in a scrap to even finish in the top four and guarantee themselves a place in next season’s Champions League.

But no opponent has left Real looking so exposed in 2023/24 and Ancelotti says he would prefer a diary without three city derbies stacked so close to one another. “The calendar is what it is. Personally, I’d rather it wasn’t like this. Atleti are a very tough side.

“The last derby did us a lot of damage. But it looks like we’ve sorted those problems out and this time we can produce a better version of what we are.”

As for referee Alberoja Rojas, like it or not, audiences will be hearing more from him than usual. The dialogues between on-pitch officials and VAR will be broadcast to the viewing public in an innovation that Spanish football intends to pursue in the future. “If it improves communication, all the better,” said Ancelotti.

Updated: January 10, 2024, 4:54 AM