Sunday 18 February 2018

Classy Atletico give Bale first taste of Spanish inquisition

REAL MADRID 0 ATLETICO MADRID 1

Ian Hawkey

Through the long negotiations between Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur over the transfer of most expensive footballer in history, Gareth Bale had plenty of time to read the guidebooks.

Welcome to Spain: eight months a year of sunshine, late lunches and a tangle-free title-race, which only two clubs can possibly win.

In his first month as a Real player, Bale has now accumulated 110 league minutes on the pitch. For none of them has his team been in the lead.

Leaving the Santiago Bernabeu stadium late on Saturday night, he could be forgiven for checking the small print of the prospectus, and asking a couple of urgent questions. Is La Liga always a two-horse race? And, hang on, it is definitely Real Madrid or Barcelona for the title, is it not?

Bale's home debut, as a half-time substitute in the main capital derby, offered all the Real players involved a novel experience, a league defeat against Atletico Madrid, a result that keeps Atletico joint top of the table with Barcelona.

Diego Costa's goal made 21st-century history, the first league triumph for the city's second club against its glamorous neighbour since Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's brace settled a 3-1 win in October 1999. Atletico dropped to the second division at the end of that season. Real won the Champions League.

GULF

The gulf has narrowed since then, but it usually looks fairly wide by each May or June. Atletico's coach, the Argentinian Diego Simeone, likes to quantify the distance between the neighbours quite precisely.

"I reckon it's about €400m," Simeone says with a smile, calculating the relative budgets with which Real and Atletico operate.

Real are the institution who set world records for investment in single transfers, like the £85m-plus-per-head Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Atletico are hawkers obliged to sell their figurehead footballers so their creditors – they owe more than €100m to the Spanish Revenue alone – are appeased, players like Fernando Torres, and, in recent summers, Sergio Aguero, David de Gea and the striker Radamel Falcao.

They might have lost yet another potent forward in August, when Liverpool inquired after the pugnacious Costa, whose derby, typically, combined great endeavour with no lost opportunity to eyeball an opponent, some brilliant positional intuition, and some eager backchat to the referee.

That package, naturally enough, appealed to Liverpool at the time of their gravest doubts over Luis Suarez's future, and they indicated a willingness to meet Costa's buy-out clause, then set at €25m. Simeone, and a new contract, persuaded him to stay in Madrid.

Costa's 11th-minute goal, converting a filtered pass from the excellent Koke, took his total for the league season to eight, the same number as Barcelona's Lionel Messi, two more than Real's Ronaldo, and gave more weight to a growing lobby for his inclusion in Spain's World Cup plans.

He is Brazilian and has won two caps for his native country, but as both were friendlies he would still be eligible to play for Spain should they call him up.

Simeone, a tough former Atletico midfielder, whose long playing career includes the episode in which he provoked David Beckham into a red-card offence at a World Cup, likes to see Costa relatively untamed.

"You take away his vivacity, and it wouldn't be him," said Simeone, before urging Atletico fans, delighted at seven wins out of seven, to remember the season stretches a long way ahead, and that theirs is a perpetual battle against the financial resources concentrated elsewhere in Spanish football.

POWER

"We are working really hard, and individuals are functioning as a team, which is the most difficult thing in football. But over the course of a league season economic power generally becomes decisive."

Over the course of knockout competitions, it need not be, and Atletico have made their best start to a campaign on the back of some positive momentum in cups. In four years they have twice won the Europa League and inflicted rare wounds on the Real dragon with victory in the last Copa del Rey final.

The triumph on Saturday was reminiscent of that night in several ways: the vivid desire of Atletico's players, the jeering and whistling of Real from the own followers, even some audible shouts from a minority of Real fans of "Jose Mourinho".

In May, Mourinho stood on Real's touchline for the last time, overseeing defeat at the Bernabeu, in that cup final. This weekend, a clutch of Real fans were using his name to taunt president Florentino Perez, and to challenge Carlo Ancelotti, Mourinho's successor.

Ancelotti woke up yesterday and saw Madrid's media mobilised for a Real crisis. Some lamented Real's inability to outfox an organised Atletico. Others wondered at Ancelotti's decision not to start with Bale, who had been recovering from a minor hamstring problem.

Once Bale (left) did come on, he encountered the same close supervision by Atletico's players that suffocated Isco, Real's most creative individual, and Ronaldo, who, on the way out of Bernabeu, paused to tell reporters: "Winning the league now looks very difficult for us."

That is with a five-point deficit, and a mere 31 matches left. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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