MADRID, Spain– Real
Madrid were supposedly in a mess last summer and Atletico Madrid about to
challenge for the title but each have defied expectations ahead of their
meeting at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday.

With Real marching to the top of La Liga and Atletico
languishing in fifth, the city derby this weekend is less a contest of rivals
and more a moderately awkward assignment for the now title favourites. 

A local derby can have a rhythm of its own, as shown by
Espanyol in 20th holding Barcelona in first to a 2-2 draw earlier this
month. 

But Atletico will need a similar reversal of form, after
four games without a win, in which they have lost to Eibar, drawn at home to
Leganes – now themselves last in La Liga – and been knocked out of the Copa del
Rey by Cultural Leonesa of Segunda B. 

And as Atleti have floundered, Real have flourished,
extending an unbeaten run to 20 matches, during which they have conceded only
nine goals and scored 45. 

In term of competitions, Real have won the Spanish Super
Cup, pulled three points clear at the top of La Liga and eased into the cup
quarter-finals, all without the injured Eden Hazard.

“We are top of the table again after being there a long
time ago,” said captain Sergio Ramos. “We have to keep
going.” 

When Zinedine Zidane returned as coach almost a year ago,
many questioned not only the timing but the wisdom of retaking charge of an
ageing squad, seemingly on an unerring trajectory of decline. 

Sceptics were initially proven right as results and performances
failed to improve and when a disjointed transfer window fed into a 7-3
pre-season defeat to Atletico, the talk was less about winning trophies and
more about Zidane losing his job. 

Yet Zidane weathered the storm, his management by calm and
charm recovering the players and restoring the steel that made Real Madrid such
a fierce opponent when they were last crowned Spanish champions in 2017. 

“Defensively what we are doing we are doing very well,
it is our strength,” Zidane said last weekend.

Their transformation began at the back, where Atletico once
owned the reputation for the most stubborn rearguard in Europe but in recent
months even that defining characteristic has left them. 

– Muted displays –

In some ways, that was part of the plan, a new era centred
instead on Joao Felix, where solidity in defence would give way a little to
freedom of expression in attack. 

Yet Felix, bought for 126 million euros, has only shown
glimpses of his talent, a series of muted displays suggesting the 20-year-old
was not ready to carry the weight of change on his shoulders. 

“Every player has a different personality, every player
needs a different amount of time,” coach Diego Simeone said, when asked
about Felix earlier this month.

With Felix now injured, and not expected to recover from a
hamstring tear for around a month, Atletico’s options are reduced, even if the
youngster’s four goals in 24 appearances means the team will hardly miss his
scoring record. 

Instead, Simeone, who largely retains the support of the
fans, must find both a replacement and a spark to jolt his side back into
life. 

Ten points looks too wide a gap to close in the league but
Atletico will need some momentum to have any chance of upsetting Liverpool next
month in the Champions League last 16.

A shock victory over Real Madrid, whom they have not beaten
in La Liga in four years, might be just what is needed, for Barcelona too, who
now trail Real by three points after their loss last weekend away at
Valencia. 

Quique Setien received a welcome boost as Barca thrashed
Leganes 5-0 on Thursday in the Copa del Rey and league games at home to
Levante, whom they face on Saturday, Getafe and Eibar should now offer a chance
to rebuild.

Sevilla, in third, are also at home to Alaves on Sunday,
looking to recover themselves after losing to Segunda’s Mirandes in the cup on
Thursday. Getafe, in fourth, play away at Athletic Bilbao.

Fixtures (times
GMT) 

Friday 

Villarreal v Osasuna (2000) 

Saturday 

Granada v Espanyol(1200), Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid
(1500), Mallorca v Real Valladolid (1730), Valencia v Celta Vigo (2000) 

Sunday

Leganes v Real Sociedad (1100), Eibar v Real Betis (1300),
Athletic Bilbao v Getafe (1500), Sevilla v Alaves (1730), Barcelona v Levante
(2000) 

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