The last time Atletico Madrid, the current league leaders in Spain, went to Real Madrid's Bernabeu, they triumphed. And the time before. Atleti's consecutive victories, in an October league match and the Copa del Rey final in May 2013, were the first time they’d won consecutive games there since 1920 and 1921. They hadn't beaten Real Madrid once this century before the cup final win.
The second result led to a 'Millions 0 Football 1' headline on the cover of AS. It also saw Atletico's title odds slashed to 14/1. They were 60/1 at the start of the season as almost nobody thought they were capable of breaking Spain's mighty, predictable, duopoly.
Odds of 14/1 were long because Atletico were expected to falter. In November, December or January, just like last year. Yet here we are in February and Atletico have got stronger, not weaker. Second to Barca for much of their incredible season, they moved three points clear of the Catalans at the weekend after Valencia triumphed in Camp Nou against a side lacking leadership.
The last time Valencia went to Barcelona, against Espanyol at the start of the season, they were so awful they looked incapable of beating anyone, which set the template for their early part of the season. Then they beat Barca. Away. Isn't football wonderful?
Atletico kept going on and on - in La Liga and the Champions League - and now they're three points clear at the top and on target to reach 100 points. Which is staggering given the financial power and talent of the big two.
Atletico became the first team to win in Athletic Bilbao's San Mames last week in a Copa del Rey game. Their reward was a semi-final against Real Madrid, the first leg of which is tonight at the Bernabeu and the second on Monday at the Calderon. Barcelona play Real Sociedad in the other semi-final, the first leg of which is also tonight in Camp Nou.
Cristiano Ronaldo, sent off in Bilbao on Sunday, will play. His three-game ban will be in league matches. Fortunately, it ends the game before another Madrid derby, in the league at Atletico in three weeks. Atletico remain third favourites for the title. The title race and the Madrid rivalry is fascinating.
Think of those Atletico players tonight as they head into the home of the enemy. Here's what their full-back and Manchester United target Filipe Luis recalls of the cup final.
“When we arrived at the Santiago Bernabeu, it was all packed with Atletico supporters,” said the Brazilian international. “Real Madrid’s crowd is much more international, composed of tourists. Ours is made of passion. The moment I came to the pitch, I noticed there were too many Atletico fans in the stadium and realized we couldn’t let them down.”
Madrid will argue that they’ve got more of every type of fan, including local ones. They averaged 65,226 at home last season in the league, Atletico 44,315. Madrid’s revenue was the only one in world sport above €500 million last year, Atletico’s €120 million.
There won't be 35,000 travelling Atleti in the Bernabeu tonight, but Simeone's preparation will be similar to the last two visits. Of the cup win last May he explained: “The players’ behaviour is a consequence of their coach. It was essential that they saw I was self-confident. I knew my team three days before the game and told them. We had personal talks and made an important video before the match. If we were scared of them then they’d kill us. We had to lose that fear.”
“There are technical differences between us and Real Madrid,” he explains. “If we play 10 games against them it is normal to lose eight. Obviously, you don’t go into the match to lose, but this is football and we have to be realistic. And the reality is that they are better than us, so they are more likely to win. But that doesn’t mean that they’re going to win.
“We showed that night (in May) that we could overcome fear. We lost to them in a league match because of fear. Ortega (Atleti’s fitness coach) said to me after the game in December (2012, Atletico lost 2-0) ‘I want to kill myself because we are never going to beat that team’. I replied: ‘You are going to say that I’m crazy, but I hope we meet them in a final. Don’t ask me why.’”
Uruguayan fitness coach Oscar Ortega is part of Simeone’s team.
“He’s very important,” says Felipe Luis. “He’s one that organizes everything, plans the training sessions.”
Assistant manager German ‘Mono (Monkey)’ Burgos is also credited with having significant influence inside the dressing room. The former Argentina and Atletico goalkeeper is a formidable character. When Madrid boss Jose Mourinho was complaining in the December game, Burgos rose from the rival dugout, pointed and said “I’m not Tito (Vilanova), I’ll tear your head off.”
There was little chance that Mourinho would have tried pinching the giant Monkey, though he did offer verbal retribution when asked about the incident. “Mono Burgos, who is this?” he asked.
Burgos, a former bin man and AC/DC fan, once said: “I couldn’t play at Real Madrid because of how I look. They’d make me cut my hair. Atletico is synonymous with workers. Atletico fans are brickies and taxi drivers.”
Simeone, Burgos, Ortega and the brickies and the cabbies head north to the Bernabeu again tonight. Their team has single-handedly made football enjoyable in Spain this year.
Andy Mitten - @AndyMitten