When Real Madrid took a 3-0 lead on rival Atlético in last week’s first leg, few expected La Liga’s Cinderella story to continue into Copa del Rey‘s final. But given what we’d seen throughout the season from Diego Simeone’s Colchoneros, a play for pride seemed to be in the offing today at the Vicente Calderón. Atleti weren’t going to go on to defend their title, but with the type of unrelenting performances we’ve come to expect from Spain’s surprise contenders, Atlético could remind their rivals why they’re even with Spain’s big two in the Primera Liga.
That didn’t happen. Instead, Cristiano Ronaldo lured Javi Manquillo into a penalty in the second leg’s seventh minute. At the quarter-hour mark, combination play between Gareth Bale and Isco drew a second penalty from Emiliano Insua. Within 15 minutes, Real Madrid had quelled whatever faint hope the Calderón held before kickoff. With 75 minutes left, on their way to a 2-0 victory, they’d put Atlético in a five-goal hole.
Atleti fans showed their displeasure by hitting Ronaldo in the head with a thrown object as the teams left for halftime. It didn’t matter. Ronaldo appeared unharmed when he surfaced for the second half, with Atlético failing to make a dent in El Real’s lead before full-time was mercifully blown.
Their Copa defense over, Atlético’s left with the perception that the entire perception of contention they’ve created under Simeone is about to crumble. Though they’re still even with Barcelona and Real Madrid atop the Spanish table, they’ve lost three games in a row. Between two defeats to their rivals and the weekend upset at Almería, the Colconeros have been outscored 7-0 in their last 270 minutes. As of last Tuesday, they had only lost once all season.
But as steep as Atlético’s decline has been, El Real’s surge has been just as pronounced. Lingering behind Spain’s two leaders for much of the season, the Merengues are now the league’s form side, having finally converted January’s innocuous possession into a swarm of February goals. In a week’s worth of games against Atlético and Villarreal (who they beat this weekend at the Bernabéu), Carlo Ancelotti’s team has scored nine times, a surge that makes them contenders for three titles.
Are they a serious contender for their long-sought decima? No. Nobody’s a serious contender compared to Bayern, but in league and Copa, Real looks as strong as anybody. Of course, the main anybody is Barcelona, but with the Blaugrana also trying to shake off some winter rust, there’s little that seems to separate the two sides.
Seemingly destined to meet in Copa’s final, and having one more Clasico in La Liga, Real and Barça will get to draw their comparisons on the field. Whether Atlético can keep up is a major doubt after another multi-goal loss.