Madrid derby battles
Real Madrid host Atletico on Saturday with Gareth Bale hoping to make his home debut after recovering from a thigh strain. Matt Stanger looks at the derby's key battles...
By Matt Stanger - Follow on Twitter
Last Updated: 27/09/13 4:29pm
Atletico Madrid travel to Real Madrid on Saturday in a clash that pits second against third in La Liga. The visitors have a perfect record so far and beat their bitter rivals for the first time in 14 years to win the Copa del Rey last season. But Real Madrid will be looking to avenge that defeat and deliver a convincing performance following a cagey 2-1 victory over Elche in their last outing. Matt Stanger picks five key battles in Saturday's encounter at the Santiago Bernabeu...
Pepe v Diego Costa
This is expected to be a brutal battle between two physical players whose temperaments are often questioned. Pepe's haul of 55 yellow cards and six reds during his spell at Real Madrid illustrates the aggressive side of his game and the defender demonstrated his penchant for the dark arts to win a debatable last-minute penalty in Real's win over Elche on Wednesday. The Portuguese has worked his way back into the first team after losing his place to Raphael Varane under Jose Mourinho last season and Saturday's derby clash will see him line up against Atletico's in-form firebrand Diego Costa. The 24-year-old striker, who was linked with a move to Liverpool in the summer, has started the season in blistering form, scoring seven goals in six matches to top the Primera Liga chart with Lionel Messi. Costa's performances have been so impressive that Vicente del Bosque is reportedly keen for the Brazil-born forward to switch his international allegiance to Spain. "I hear rumours, and of course it is an honour that Spain would look at me, but I am not getting too caught up in it," said Costa. Another match-winning display on Saturday would certainly help his cause.
Cristiano Ronaldo v Juanfran
Although Juanfran has played a key role in Atletico's recent success, starting both May's Copa del Rey final and the club's Europa League victory in 2012, he is often seen as a weak link in Diego Simeone's well-drilled defensive unit. The Spain international's positioning and tackling is occasionally suspect and he will need to be at his very best on Saturday to keep Ronaldo quiet. The Portuguese winger has started the new campaign in typically superb form, bagging six goals in six La Liga matches as well as a stunning hat-trick against Galatasaray in the Champions League. After he was sent off in extra-time in Real's Copa del Rey defeat last season, Ronaldo will be looking to make amends on Saturday and Juanfran could be made to suffer.
Karim Benzema v Thibaut Courtois
Chelsea youngster Courtois is enjoying a third season on loan at Atletico where his performances have been pivotal in Simeone's side becoming the best of the rest in Spain. The Belgian achieved a new club record by going 820 minutes without conceding a goal last year and is confident of victory at the Santiago Bernabeu this weekend. "We have a great team, we know how to beat them," said the 21-year-old. "As a player, you never play for a draw, you always play to win." If Atleti are to sneak a victory against their rivals, Courtois will need to stand up to the challenge of Karim Benzema, who has a point to prove after recent criticism. The striker scored only 11 goals in La Liga last year (although he did provide 11 assists) and hasn't hit the back of the net for France in 1,217 minutes - a run that dates back to before Euro 2012. A goal against Atletico may be just the boost Benzema needs to kickstart his season.
Gareth Bale v Filipe Luis
Although former Liverpool full-back Emiliano Insua started Atletico's win against Osasuna on Tuesday, Filipe Luis is expected to return to the starting line-up on Saturday. The Brazilian left-back has been one of Atletico's most consistent performers over the past two seasons and will provide a tough test for Bale should the winger play a part in the derby. Bale missed Real Madrid's narrow win over Elche with a thigh strain, but he should make his Bernabeu bow on Saturday after training this week. "I think he will be ready for Saturday no problem," said Carlo Ancelotti. The big question is whether the manager is prepared to start Bale following his injury concerns and the 24-year-old will be desperate to impress after two games on the sidelines. If he plays on the right, as he did against Galatasaray and Villarreal, then Bale will have to show his full range of flicks and tricks to outsmart Luis.
Luka Modric v Gabi
It seems certain that Sami Khedira will start the derby after playing 90 minutes in Real Madrid's last three matches, but who will partner the German is open to debate. Ancelotti has juggled Luka Modric and £26m summer signing Asier Illarramendi so far, with the Croatian subbed off against Elche on Wednesday as the hosts fought their way back into the match. It seems likely that Modric will start as the team's deep-lying playmaker again on Saturday, however, as Ancelotti continues to rue Xabi Alonso's injury absence. "I am not happy. We need to play differently," said the manager after the win over Elche. "We won't win the derby if we play like we have done in this match, that's why I think we need to improve, play with more intensity and personality." If Modric is to provide this 'personality' then he will need to impose himself on Atletico's midfield, in which Gabi is a leading influence. The Atleti captain has been key in the club's perfect start to the campaign and only one player - Espanyol's Victor Sanchez - has made more tackles than the 30-year-old in La Liga this season. To get past Atletico, you have to get around Gabi.