Spanish capital city rivals Atlético and Real Madrid played out a tense 0-0 draw in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals last night, with the tie on a knife-edge ahead of next week’s return at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.
In a repeat of last season’s final, in which Diego Simeone’s team came within a whisker of a memorable victory, both sides will leave this clash with relative satisfaction.
While Carlo Ancelotti’s men will be content in the knowledge that a home win will see them through to the next stage, Atleti will take heart in their recent positive derby record and the fact that they drew 0-0 with Chelsea at home at the same stage last season before progressing.
Despite some exciting action in spells, especially in the first half when the visitors were on top and the last ten minutes when the hosts pushed for a goal, the game did not quite live up to its billing from a footballing perspective.
Maybe, had Gareth Bale slotted home the best chance of the game in the early exchanges, Atlético would have been forced to be more expansive, which would surely have made for a more open game.
However, in my opinion the most disappointing element of the fixture was some of the unsavoury incidents that are unfortunately starting to become the norm in European football rather than isolated exceptions.
The first real sour moment for me was in the first half, when the ball broke loose in midfield and the respective captains went in to win a 50-50 ball.
Unlike the blood and thunder but ultimately fair challenges that were perhaps commonplace in derby fixtures in days gone by, both Sergio Ramos and Gabi entered the personal contest meekly.
Staying on his feet, the Real Madrid man won the ball fairly, only for the home skipper to fall holding the top of his foot – which had come into contact with the ball, not Ramos.
The referee gave a free-kick, which in itself negates the term ‘contact sport’, but Gabi’s rolling around on the turf was pure gamesmanship and pretty pathetic.
In a high-profile game at a tense venue, the Atlético midfielder’s actions were clearly an attempt to make the most of Ramos’ at-times questionable reputation and track record of red cards.
The fanfare and ruckus that surrounded the tackle only accentuated Gabi’s theatrics.
As a world-class defender, Ramos should be lamented for not going in harder to win the ball, with the soft, tame tackle an indication that football is finally losing the elements of combativeness and competition.
Gabi, a talisman for Atleti and good footballer, should be highly embarrassed if he watches his playacting back on video, with a case for retrospective action against the midfielder to stamp out this undesirable trait.
Meanwhile, the second half saw a number of noteworthy incidents between Atlético striker Mario Mandžukić and Madrid’s backline.
The Croat was bloodied after catching Ramos’ elbow in an innocuous encounter, while he was also caught up in running battles with Dani Carvajal.
At the time of writing it appears unclear whether Carvajal is guilty of biting Mandžukić, with evidence to suggest he could be culpable of this cowardly act.
From a physical perspective most of the other altercations were not outwith what you could expect from any competitive football match, but the petulance that accompanied each clash will sadden football purists.
All players involved seemed more interested in getting their opponent in trouble with the referee than winning the ball, with constant appeals over the latest ‘travesty’.
Simeone, a wonderful manager who deserves so much credit for what he has achieved at the Estadio Vicente Calderón, was not an angel as a player and certainly isn’t as a coach either.
The Argentine’s remonstrations from the sidelines only wound tensions up further and put more pressure on the thankless task the referee had – controlling two groups of players that at times looked more like schoolboys than professional athletes.
Despite the unbelievable technical ability of the players on both teams, last night’s game was not a fixture for the purists, with any potential for a spectacle negated by frequent shows of ungentlemanly conduct.
Hopefully next week’s return leg will capture the imagination more for the right reasons, with the growing trend of unsavoury aspects of our sport a sidenote rather than making the headlines.