By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) – Breaking Atletico Madrid’s recent stranglehold on a fixture that used to be a foregone conclusion for Real Madrid is the challenge facing coach Zinedine Zidane ahead of Saturday’s Madrid derby, the last at the Vicente Calderon stadium.
Real enjoyed utter domination over their rivals for 14 years but the tables have turned and they have not won a league derby since Jose Mourinho oversaw a 2-1 win at the Calderon in 2013.
Atletico have won four and drawn two of the last six league derbies, just one demonstration of how charismatic Argentine coach Diego Simeone has transformed the fortunes of the sleeping giant he took over in December 2011.
“He is a coach with a unique capacity to communicate, that’s why he has got where he is and why he was able to dig us out of the trouble we were in,” said Atletico captain Gabi, who has won the La Liga title, King’s Cup and reached two Champions League finals under Simeone.
“With one look or gesture he’s able to speak to any player, and that’s why at the moment the most important thing for this club is the fact we have Simeone with us.”
Real still have the upper hand on their neighbours in European competition and Saturday’s game is the first meeting between the teams since Real’s penalty shootout victory in the Champions League final last May.
The game takes on extra significance for being the last league derby at the Vicente Calderon stadium with Atletico due to move from the 50-year-old ground to a new 67,000 capacity arena next year.
“That it will be the last derby at the Calderon makes it exciting and special. It will be strange not to experience it there again, as we have had unforgettable moments there,” Gabi added.
The game will have plenty of significance in the title race. Real top the La Liga standings on 27 points, two above Barcelona in second and six clear of Atletico in fourth.
A Real victory would stretch their advantage over their city rivals to nine points and severely dent Atletico’s hopes of repeating their La Liga triumph of 2014.
Atletico are hopeful top scorer Antoine Griezmann will be able to start despite returning early from international duty with France due to a foot injury,
Real welcome back captain Sergio Ramos after five weeks out with a knee problem but the European champions will be without midfielders Toni Kroos and Casemiro and striker Alvaro Morata due to injury.
Champions Barcelona host Malaga hours before the derby and will be looking to capitalise on any slip from Real.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)