A City On The Edge: Real Madrid And Atletico Madrid Meet Again Amid Rising Tensions

Few cities in the world are as soccer mad as the Spanish capital of Madrid. The city boasts an impressive four top-flight teams, with a further two in the second tier of Spanish soccer. In Vallecas, the neigborhood empties out on a Sunday afternoon as locals leave the streets to head to the Estadio de Vallecas, while Getafe is leading a new era of fan engagement by upping the ante in the suburbs. Their neighboring suburbs of Alcorcón and Leganés have teams in Segunda with their own loyal followings.

Beyond even that, Sunday mornings are the stomping ground of the city’s semi-professional and amateur leagues. RSD Alcalá play their home matches just minutes from where the iconic author Miguel Cervantes was born. Real Aranjuez’s 8,000-seater stadium is within walking distance of one of Spain’s most beautiful palaces. Closer to the city center, La Mina is home to RCD Carabanchel, the third oldest club in the city, founded in 1916.

Only two teams have existed in the Spanish capital than Carabanchel: Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid. Both clubs regularly sell out their stadiums, with a combined capacity of 151,504, and have a combined number of club members of almost 250,000. That is despite strict limitations to become a Real Madrid club member.

It is a testament to their history that these two teams should fight it out for the top honors, with Barcelona thrown into the mix for good measure as representatives of the country’s second city, on a yearly basis. The split down the middle is reflected across the city, and even fans of Getafe, Alcalá, or Carabanchel tend to have a preference between the two forces that define the city’s sporting landscape.

The rivalry dates back to the very beginning, literally in the case of Atlético. Their club was founded after a 1903 Copa final in which Madrid CF was beaten by Athletic Club de Bilbao. Jubilant Basque fans who were living in Madrid were so enthused by the win, having come from 2-0 behind to win 3-2, that they decided to set up a Madrid branch. 120 years on, with a break in the official link to Athletic in between, that is what is now known as Atlético de Madrid.

Rising tension

The past 12 months have seen tensions rise between the two clubs. After a series of unpleasant incidents involving fans and chants towards players, there were accusations of racism pointed in the direction of Atlético Madrid captain Koke ahead of last year’s derby match regarding seemingly innocent words about Real Madrid star Vinícius Júnior. Following much media furor, racist chants were heard as he took to the pitch.

Tensions continued both on and off the field. A controversial red card for Ángel Correa at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, and the lack of one for Dani Ceballos, enraged Atlético fans, while club legends and one-time Liverpool teammates Fernando Torres and Álvaro Arbeloa clashed on the touchline of a youth team match. That came at the same time as a “pact of non-aggression” between the clubs, agreeing not to poach staff or youth players from one another, was brought to an abrupt end.

Real Madrid remain the top dog. Their fans will frequently point to their 14 Champions League titles, while Atlético are still looking for their first after twice being beaten by their rivals in the final. Domestically, Los Blancos have 35 league titles compared to Atlético’s 11.

But there has been some discomfort over the past decade for the giants. Coach Diego Simeone transformed Atleti since his appointment late in 2011, with one of his first pivotal moments coming as the Colchoneros shocked everyone by winning the 2013 Copa del Rey final against a Real Madrid side playing on home turf at the Bernabéu. “With our tools, with our possibilities, in recent times we have been able to fight against great rivals, and that should be a reference for the people, who work hard and things don’t work out,” Simeone said amid the celebrations.

Over the last decade, Real Madrid have won the domestic league title three times, in 2016/17, 2019/20 and 2021/22, while Atlético Madrid have done so twice, in 2013/14 and 2020/21. While continental competition favors Real Madrid, Atleti certainly holds their own on the domestic front in recent years.

Sunday’s Madrid derby

On Sunday night, the two come head to head once again. Atlético have beaten Real Madrid just once in LaLiga in the last eight years, even that coming against a heavily rotated team which had already won the league for Carlo Ancelotti. Rojiblancos are desperate to change that record.

Many eyes will be on the touchline, where Ancelotti and Simeone will come head to head for the 21st time, with eight wins for the Italian, seven for the Argentine, and five draws. While Simeone said that his team viewed this match “as important as any league game”, Ancelotti pointed to a “special focus” from his players for the derby. Two of Spain’s greatest-ever coaches, albeit with their contrasting styles, leading two of Spain’s biggest clubs in an intense derby fixture promises to produce a spectacle once again.

Real Madrid has had the stronger start to the season, winning every single one of their six fixtures to date this season, while Atlético has been brought back down to earth with a bump following a 3-0 defeat to Valencia and a 94th-minute equalizer for Lazio in the Champions League in midweek. Defeat in this game would leave Atleti 11 points behind the league leaders after just five matches. “Those games won’t affect this one,” Ancelotti insisted in his pre-match press conference.

The visitors will also be able to call upon Vinícius Júnior, their main man following the summer exit of Karim Benzema, as he returns from injury. In his absence, young Jude Bellingham has already made his $110 million transfer fee look a bargain with six goals in as many games from midfield. Victory here, in their first real test of the season, would further underline the club’s hopes to regain the league title.

When the two teams met in the Copa del Rey earlier this year with the game shown live on public television, more than one in three television sets nationwide were tuned into the match. The eyes of the nation will again be upon the Estadio Cívitas Metropolitano for this clash, which already looks like it could have the potential to be season-defining for both teams.

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