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Defensive Battle Gives Madrid Derby New Look

Sunday will see third place Real Madrid visit fifth place Atletico Madrid in the 157th La Liga installment of the Madrid Derby. Although the rivalry has by-and-large been dominated by the Blanco side of the city — through a win ratio of 85-38 — recent history has skewed much more Rojiblanco.

After having failed to defeat Real since the turn of the century, Atleti has now triumphed in three of the last four Liga derbies. That unforeseen truth might indicate to some that there’s been a significant power-shift in the Capital. Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Coming into this week, Atleti had not conceded a goal at the Vicente Calderon in more than 700 minutes of play. While that sounds about right for a Diego Simeone-led juggernaut like Atletico Madrid, what doesn’t sound right is the Colchoneros then losing 2-1 to Benfica in the same building in a Champions League group match on Wednesday. It’s not fitting for this incarnation of Atleti to give up goals period, let alone two in a losing effort.

Simply a bad day at the office? Perhaps. But if not, it could be time to ring the bells. Because there are few worse monsters to come up against when you’re out-of-form than Real Madrid. And in particular, Cristiano Ronaldo.

What’s so peculiar about the Portuguese talisman’s current form is that it could be argued that he’s in the midst of the biggest — and weirdest — slump of his career. To be fair, the “slump” is very much a foreign concept to Ronaldo, who just yesterday scored his 500th and 501st career goals against Malmo in the CL. (And that’s in just 753 career matches. The latter goal of said brace also put him neck-and-neck on Real Madrid’s all-time goalscoring list with club legend Raul, both with 323.)

So where’s this slump? Well, it’s tricky. Technically, Ronaldo has only scored in three of his 10 games for club and country this season. When you consider his penchant for getting on the scoresheet every single week, especially for Real Madrid, that stat is definitely startling.

Equally startling, however, is the fact that in those three matches in which he scored, he’s tallied a total of 10 goals. That includes five against Espanyol, three against Shakhtar Donetsk, and the two against Malmo. Yes, this is what a slump looks like for Cristiano Ronaldo.

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Of course, the reason that this isn’t actually a slump is because the Portuguese has continued to be the best player on the pitch in each of these “cursed” matches. Ronaldo’s averaging 8.2 shot per game this Liga season; next best is Lionel Messi with 5.3. In the last three league matches, he’s managed a total of 26 shots-on-target with zero goals to show for it.

Perhaps more than ever, Ronaldo has simply been unlucky. Fortunately for him and Madrid, these missed opportunities have yet to really hamper any results thanks to a new and improved defensive perspective that can only be credited to one Rafa Benitez.

The Spaniard has altered the identity of this Real Madrid side. Where they were a flamboyant attacking beast before, they’ve turned into a more stout unit, prioritizing the clean sheet over the blowout.

Of course, people still need to score to accumulate points, and nobody other than the Usual Suspect and Karim Benzema is really doing it at the moment. Basically, if Ronaldo doesn’t put away truckloads of strikes each time out, they run the risk goose egging their way through the season. That bleakness is compounded by the stack of injuries piling up, notably that of James Rodriguez and Gareth Bale.

In both James and Bale, Real Madrid have two of their most inventive players watching from the stands. It’s still unclear whether or not either man will be ready to go on Sunday, but their presence — or absence — will most certainly be felt either way. Still, this predicament will always come back to Ronaldo, and Benitez knows that.

“There is no need to worry with Cristiano, as he is always there, and we all know his quality,” Benitez told reporters prior to Wednesday’s match.

“We are also missing players who make and score goals, and we need to improve the numbers of those from the second line like Isco and Jese, so we do not depend so much on [Karim] Benzema and Cristiano.”

Rafa understands his team’s problems, as Benzema and Ronaldo have accounted for more than 70 percent of Real Madrid’s league goals this campaign. These are worrying numbers that point towards potential problems going forward. Their league-high +13 goal-differential takes a rather pejorative shade when you take away that one Espanyol game where Cristiano snatched a five-piece.

It’s still difficult to believe that these scoring issues will last, especially when the physio room clears out. Although it might not even matter. As it stands, Real have only allowed one goal all season, tops in La Liga. Time and time again, we’ve seen the league’s best defensive team hoisting the trophy come May. Barcelona did it last season. The year before? Simeone’s Atletico Madrid.

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