"Now this will be Atletico's game of the year," said Alvaro Arbeloa, the Real Madrid defender, a little provocatively, implying that local boasting rights might be all Atletico can aspire to, after a setback in Europe, a home defeat against Benfica on Wednesday, immediately after having lost to Villarreal, who took up the summit of the league table on the back of that result.
Yet if there is a team Real Madrid should fear, it is Atletico, who have produced, at least in domestic competitions, some of their most memorable performances of the past three or four years against their fiercest rivals, their least-favourite neighbours. Last season they routed Real 4-0 at the Vicente Calderon.
Few coaches this century have cultivated the guerrilla spirit Atleti like to identify as characteristic of the club as consciously as does Diego Simeone, who guided them to the historic 2014 league title.
Simeone is a pragmatic sort, a tactician unashamed to prioritise effectiveness over elegance, but at the same time he is an appreciator of qualities well beyond the strategic.
He once played for Atletico, and vividly works up fans from his technical area, arms waving, to exploit his strong sense of community with the club’s followers.
He knows there are some among them who have a notoriety, and the defeat to Benfica reminded him of that. A Uefa punishment will likely be levelled against the club after the flares that were thrown from the grandstands of the Calderon on Wednesday.
Among Simeone’s selection dilemmas ahead of the derby are choices about whether to include, or leave out, players who have the Atletico gene.
Koke, his best passer and creator in midfield, and a graduate of Atleti’s youth system, is labouring with injury, while his expensive new centre-forward, Jackson Martinez, who joined in the summer from Porto, has laboured in front of goal lately.
Simeone’s alternatives? Two men named Torres, a pair of footballers imbued with Atletico’s DNA.
Oliver Torres, the gifted attacking midfielder, has earned the trust of his coach this season, and been told that 2015/16 can be his breakthrough campaign.
Oliver, as he usually is known, largely to distinguish him from the more celebrated Torres in the squad, Fernando, spent last season on loan at Porto, where he made a strong impression in Europe and domestically. Simeone observed his development there, his unusual poise and confidence on the ball, with satisfaction.
Oliver turns 21 next month. He is short and slight but has a neat touch. Simeone harbours some doubts about his energy over 90 minutes in an Atletico side who try to press hard and expect to spend periods of matches without possession of the ball, but he has seen enough of the young man’s grit and gifts to identify him as a key figure for the current season.
Fernando Torres, meanwhile, has in nine months laid the foundations for a career renaissance. The 31-year-old striker was once regarded among the very finest scorers anywhere; his trials, after leaving Liverpool, who signed him from Atletico in 2007, to join Chelsea are well documented.
His wretched six months at AC Milan in the first half of last season were almost worse and seemed to confirm his zip and zest of old had vanished for good.
But since his January return to Atletico, the club he had captained in his early 20s, some of his old magic has returned.
Simeone brought him back partly because he is an Atletico man, born and bred, knows the ethos of the club, and needs no telling how important the capital derby is.
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