MADRID, Spain– Zinedine
Zidane’s double substitution at half-time transformed the Madrid derby on
Saturday as Real Madrid edged past Atletico 1-0 to move six points clear at the
top of La Liga. 

Karim Benzema scored the winner at the Santiago Bernabeu
after Zidane’s decisive intervention turned a contest that Atletico had
dominated into another comfortable Real Madrid victory. 

Vinicius Junior, one of the substitutes, was also key to the

“I wasn’t happy with what I saw but it’s not down to
the players, it’s my responsibility,” Zidane said. “We had to make a

Second-place Barcelona can cut the gap back to three points
by beating Levante at home on Sunday but Atletico now trail the leaders by

While Diego Simeone’s side were strong in the first half,
they were yet again blunt in front of goal and then failed to respond when
their opponents found a different gear.

This is Atletico’s fifth game without a win and on this
form, they might begin to worry about missing out on Champions League

“Of course there is concern, we must work to
improve,” said Simeone.

It is a far cry from pre-season when they thrashed Real 7-3
and many were tipping them as serious challengers. 

Zidane was under pressure then but his team are on a
relentless run, now 21 games unbeaten, the latest due in large part to his

The decision to ditch a failing system and revert to 4-3-3,
with Vinicius Junior and Lucas Vazquez coming on for Isco and Toni Kroos, was
both brave and effective. 

Real’s form is impressive and they have Eden Hazard, out
since November, on the brink of a return, perhaps on Thursday in the Copa del
Rey quarter-finals against Real Sociedad. 

Gareth Bale’s absence was not related to fitness. The
Welshman was left out of the squad despite training for most of the week after
an ankle injury. 

“He was available,” said Zidane. “I had to
choose and I chose someone else. But it’s not a big issue and I’m counting on
him until the end.”

Atletico were without the injured Kieran Trippier, meaning
Sime Vrsaljko came in a right-back. January signing Yannick Carrasco was named
on the bench, after rejoining from Dalian Yifang the day before. 

Simeone’s side were significantly better in the first half
and should have taken one of a handful of decent chances as Vitolo hit Thibaut
Courtois, Saul Niguez flashed wide and Angel Correa poked past the post after
going through one-on-one, even if he probably would have been called offside.

Casemiro was fortunate not to concede a penalty when he
clumsily fell into Morata. 

Real Madrid’s cluster of central midfielders looked unsure
of their 4-3-2-1 shape. Fede Valverde looked particularly uncomfortable as he
spent much of the first half as a right winger. Luka Modric was virtually
anonymous in his more advanced role. 

Zidane’s double change was a recognition of Atletico’s
superiority as he reverted to the more familiar 4-3-3 with Modric deeper in

The balance shifted immediately. Real dominated the start of
the second half.

In the 56th minute, Vinicius cut in from the left and
slipped in the overlapping Ferland Mendy, whose cross to the back post gave
Benzema a simple finish. 

Atletico had been weakened shortly before when Alvaro
Morata, perhaps the best player on the pitch in the first 45 minutes, went off
with an injury. He was replaced by Thomas Lemar, whom Simeone expected to be
sold in the January transfer window. 

Real retreated a little, perhaps waiting for an Atletico
push that never came. 

Valverde enjoyed a spontaneous standing ovation for a burst
forward, an appreciation too perhaps for his brilliant breakthrough season.
Another roar of approval greeted the final whistle.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here