Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid shared the spoils in the El Derbi Madrileño played at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday, within the 23rd round of the La Liga campaign. For 77 minutes the game remained goalless, but then, despite playing with 10 men after substitute Angel Correa earned a straight red card in the 64th, the visitors took the lead through a fine header by Jose Maria Gimenez. However, 18-year-old Alvaro Rodriguez produced an equally good header of his own to set the score back level with five minutes to go.
Real Madrid have been credited with strong interest in Borussia Dortmund star Jude Bellingham ahead of the summer transfer window, but Italian transfer expert Fabrizio Romano recently revealed that though the interest is genuine, a midfielder is not a priority for Los Blancos and they will first look to sign a striker, a potential long-term successor to Karim Benzema.
Now, the emergence of Alvaro may have solved that particular issue for them already. The youngster, who still plays for Real Madrid Castilla and Uruguay’s Under-20 side, has played only twice in the Spanish top flight for the senior Real team, and having booked an assists for Marco Asensio in the 92nd minute of their 0-2 win away to Osasuna last week, he delivered an even more important goal, his first-ever at this level, to deny Atletico the bragging rights in the city.
Standing 6’4” tall, Alvaro packs plenty of pace and positional awareness, and all of these traits came to light as he cleverly took advantage of Benzema and Aurelien Tchouameni running ahead and pulling Atletico’s defensive line with them to leap into the air and put his best effort into a free header which bounced off the ground and off the post before going in, leaving Jan Oblak powerless to stop it.
The cross which came from a corner on the left was an excellent piece of veteran Luka Modric, who assisted Eder Militao in a similar way in Real’s 2-5 thumping of Liverpool at Anfield earlier this week.
In his post-match press conference, head coach Carlo Ancelotti said he expected Alvaro to play for his team more regularly next season and promised to speak to Castilla coach Raul Gonzalez on the subject.
The title race
But while Alvaro’s goal, coupled with the early joy of avoiding what had looked like a likely defeat, brought smiles to the faces of everyone at Real Madrid, the fact that their failure to beat their neighbours at home has given arch-rivals Barcelona a chance to increase their lead at the top of the table to 10 points has hit arguably even harder. The Catalans play away to 19th-place Almeria on Sunday evening, and a win would take them to a tally of 62 points, while Real sit on 52.
Ancelotti promised his team wouldn’t give up on the La Liga title just yet, but if the gap goes to 10, the time may well be for Real to relinquish the part of their plan relating to the league title defence and focus more fully on the quest for the 15th Champions League trophy.
As for Atletico, it’s an important result which has kept them two points ahead of fifth-place Real Betis, and one less than Real Sociedad in third. A top four finish seems perfectly achievable, given that the domestic league is the only front left for them to fight on this season.
The red card
There was, of course, plenty of anger at the decision of referee Jesus Gil to send Correa straight off from the Atletico players, as well as head coach Diego Simeone, but a closer look at the incident shows very clearly that the substitute attacker had in fact, just like Gil claimed, aimed a deliberate elbow blow to the chest of Real defender Antonio Rudiger.
Rudiger is by no means a player physically weak and as Simeone tried to point out, he’s much bigger than Correa. The pain the blow caused was probably significantly less than the Germany international made it out to be, but the intention of Correa to hit him cannot be disputed and the red card was surely the right call.
Alvaro wasn’t the only teenager that caught the eye in this derby. In the absence of World Cup winner Rodrigo De Paul, Simeone started 19-year-old Pablo Barrios in the middle of the park.
Barrios put in a fine performance throughout, frequently causing problems for Real in either half of the pitch, and even dancing with the ball quite dangerously into their box on a few occasions. Simeone’s decision to leave him in the dressing room after the break was a purely tactical one, with the Argentinian coach wishing to provide forward Antoine Griezmann with some support upfront and sending Correa on in Barrios’s place. It obviously backfired less than 20 minutes later.
Slightly more experienced than Alvaro, Barrios already has eight La Liga games and one in the Champions League under his belt, but both of his goals so far came in the four Copa del Rey matches he’s played. Just like Alvaro, he is a name to be watched in the coming years.
The Real midfield
There was a moment in this match which made all the power of a club like Real Madrid clear for everyone to see. In the 63rd minute, Ancelotti withdrew the trio of Toni Kroos, Dani Ceballos and Asensio, replacing them with Luka Modric, Aurelien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga. The three newcomers took the middle of the park for themselves, while Fede Valverde made his way to the right side of the attacking line.
As has been said, Real do not see strengthening their midfield section as a priority this summer and do not consider themselves as favourutes to land Bellingham, and this triple substitution showed why. But as Romano himself pointed out, things may yet change if, at the end of the season, both Kroos and Modric decide not to extend their contracts.
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