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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 25 February 2021

Atletico striker Luis Suarez ready to take on old foes Real in Madrid derby

Former Barca attacker was unhappy at being taken off in the midweek win against Salzburg and manager Simeone will be hoping Los Blancos bare brunt of his frustrations

Woe betide anybody on the wrong side of an angry Luis Suarez. Or for that matter a surly Saul Niguez. Those Atletico Madrid warriors could have melted the snow off the Alps with the heat of their disgust at being substituted at RB Salzburg on Wednesday.

The man who hooked them just after the hour of a laboured Atletico victory, Diego Simeone, registered their fury. Once a 2-0 win had secured his club’s place in the last 16 of the Champions League, he set about channelling it.

“It’s to be expected,” he said of his pair of crosspatches. “I’d be annoyed too. If you’re an important player you get cross if you have to come off for someone who goes out there determined to make a good job of it.”

The remarks were not exactly a balm for striker Suarez and midfielder Saul, but they were not intended for that.

Atletico’s long-serving manager wants everybody fired up, especially those figurehead players he judges are at their best when bearing a grudge. If Suarez and Saul go into Saturday’s Liga fixture Real Madrid a little steamed-up, all the better.

It will be Suarez’s first Madrid derby, but his 17th confrontation with a Real he learnt to master regularly over his six years at Barcelona – 11 goals in his 16 clasicos.

He left Camp Nou in the summer angry at the manner of his departure, unwanted by a club seeking to trim its wage-bill, and Simeone was thrilled the Uruguayan chose, at 34, to bottle that rage in Atletico colours.

His impact was instant: five goals in his first six Liga appearances for his new club and by the time he had to step aside to observe quarantine for a positive Covid-19 test, Atletico were climbing to the top of the table.

The view from there looks almost idyllic. Atletico have two matches in hand over second-placed Real Sociedad, a point behind them, and over Villarreal, who are five points in arrears.

Real Madrid are fourth, six points beneath their city rivals having played one match more. And Barcelona? Twelve points adrift. They miss Suarez, although that’s only one item on a very lost list of Barca defects.

Atletico last won La Liga in 2014 and, back then, seldom surveyed their chasers from a position of such superiority.

That season, Simeone’s second full campaign in charge, stalked the title, hovering on the shoulder of Barca until the spring, and leaving it to the last day, at Camp Nou, to seize the prize. Madrid and Barcelona both scored 100 goals, or more, that year; Atletico, with 77 from 38 matches, went about their business in a more austere way.

When a manager stays as long as a club as Simeone, his methods become familiar and, after a while, begin to look like a badge that cannot be removed.

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Gallery: Real 2 Monchengladbach 0

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The ‘Simeone Way’ tends to be distilled into: discipline off the ball; clever counter-attack; well-rehearsed set-pieces. All that remains part of his evolved Atletico.

Witness Salzburg on Wednesday, when Atletico, at risk of elimination from the Champions League, endured pressure in their own half of the pitch and snatched the lead thanks to a central defender, Mario Hermoso, putting his head to a cross from a set-piece.

Yet the squad of 2020 has more flourish about it than the feisty brigade of six years ago, and any assessment of Atletico’s resources, or indeed their flair, next to those of Real, finds not much to chose between them.

Atletico’s most expensive signing, Joao Felix, cost more than Real’s, Eden Hazard. In the 18 months since both arrived in Spain, Felix has grown from a sometimes overawed teenager to a dazzling match-winner. Hazard has never strung together more than four La Liga matches because of injury, and will miss the derby with his latest muscular problem.

But Real Madrid are the reigning champions, and achieved that by borrowing items from Simeone’s manual: rigour in defence, victories by small margins, goals from dead balls.

When those strengths, cultivated through the post-shutdown period of June and July, vanish, Real can look vulnerable.

Only a week ago, after Shakhtar Donetsk had beaten them for a second time in Europe on the back of defeats against Valencia and Alaves, their manager Zinedine Zidane was leaning on the shuttered doors of a last-chance saloon.

A happier Zidane confronts the derby. Sevilla were beaten last weekend and top spot in their Champions League group efficiently seized with victory against Borussia Monchengladbach. “It’s something that’s within this team,” smiled Zidane. “The bigger the problems, and when we absolutely have to win, we get to work.”

Updated: December 11, 2020 01:12 PM

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