A win in their Derbi would have sent either of the Madrid juggernauts into first place in La Liga. But Atletico and Real’s 0-0 stalemate on Saturday kept little Granada in first place. That is, unless Real Sociedad wins at Sevilla on Sunday to take the lead.
Which tells you all you need to know about this bizarre Spanish season thus far.
Just as this game said a lot about the new balance of power between Atletico and Real. Traditionally, the latter towered over the former, which was even relegated to the Segunda Division back in 2000. Real was rich and regal. Atletico scrappy and gritty.
Today, the clubs are more alike than they are different. Atletico is no longer the overshadowed little brother. The wonderfully nicknamed Mattressmakers finished above Real the last two seasons, and they have as many league titles in the last six seasons as Real does – one apiece – while reaching the Champions League final twice.
Atletico has its own shiny stadium now, and the transfer budget to match. The biggest thing that sets these teams apart is legacy, really. Because on the field, there was little between them at the Wanda Metropolitano, Atletico’s gleaming new home. That is to say, their forgettable performances canceled each other out.
Both teams made relatively rocky starts to the season. Atletico didn’t win a game by more than a single goal until midweek and dropped five points from its first five games. Real has dropped four. Neither team won their Champions League openers. Real was humiliated 3-0 by Paris Saint-Germain; Atletico needed a late comeback not to lose to Juventus at home.
But then Atletico lost a handful of starters this summer. Star forward Antoine Griezmann was poached by FC Barcelona – illegally, as it turns out, for which Barca was fined all of 300 euros on a 120 million euro transfer. Several veterans moved on. Diego Simeone is trying to build a fresh system, evolving to more possession and attacking, a departure from its faithful bunker-and-counter setup, a signature style that brought it all of its recent success.
And Real is ostensibly rebuilding with a slew of expensive young acquisitions. Yet with Zinedine Zidane back as manager, it has fielded more or less the same team as the last half decade, only with Eden Hazard slotted in where Cristiano Ronaldo once featured.
Neither team has figured it out yet. And Zidane is working under the perpetual threat of Jose Mourinho returning if he loses one game too many. Strongman Real president Florentino Perez still admires the Portuguese, in spite of flaming out at Manchester United, even though Perez was the one to push him out of the Spanish capital after three turbulent seasons.
He gives Mourinho credit for building the team that won four Champions Leagues after he left in 2013. Mourinho has been flirting back. “I’m a Madridista. Full stop,” he said in a recent interview. Never mind that all his career he’d coveted the top job at Barca, where he’d first made the transition from translator to coach.
Meantime, Hazard, the big summer signing, seemed to finally be coming along, after arriving out of shape, injured, and out of form. But he was fairly feckless on Saturday, making several awkward touches and committing embarrassing turnovers. He seems to be one of those players who needs to be involved in every possession, or else he disappears. He was at Chelsea. He isn’t at Real, even as he was ostensibly recruited to revive an over-the-hill core of players.
It made for a mirthless match. Atletico had the better of the chances in the first half on a pair of shots from the Portuguese wunderkind Joao Felix, while Diego Costa very nearly got onto the end of a low cross from the excellent Thomas Partey. Real goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois did his part to keep Atletico at bay as well.
In the second half, Real was more threatening, but it mostly failed to even get its efforts on target. Just as Atletico’s Angel Correa sent an open header so far wide that it would even have missed a goal twice as large, Gareth Bale sent his shot into orbit on a great look. It was just that kind of game.
The closest either team got was when Karim Benzema provoked an outstanding save from Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak with a snap header in the 75th minute. But neither team seemed all that bothered about settling for a tie, not that they their play gave them much choice in the matter.
So it was a suitably goalless tie between teams that now seem on even footing, even though neither has clicked yet.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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