Paul Pogba may be about to experience a case of deja vu as he drifts towards the Manchester United exit door.

When the mercurial midfielder waved goodbye to Old Trafford in 2012, the Frenchman headed to the bright lights of Turin to make his name at Juventus.

Fast forward eight years and it seems the 27-year-old Pogba is edging closer towards retracing his own footsteps in an attempt to relaunch his career.

 

TOP STORY – JUVENTUS 'OPEN TALKS' WITH POGBA'S AGENT

Manchester United star Paul Pogba is a "top target" for Juventus in 2021, according to journalist Carlo Garganese.

Serie A champions Juve have already began talks with Pogba's agent Mino Raiola, and a deal could be done as soon as January.

Raiola claimed Pogba's United career was over in an interview with Italian outlet Tuttosport last week, prompting links to Juve, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain.

If an agreement cannot be reached in January, the player United paid £89million for four years ago could be set for a Serie A return in the off-season.

 

ROUND-UP

- United will have to wait until the end of the season to bring in any new recruits, according to the Manchester Evening News. But reports from Todo Fichajes in Spain suggest the Red Devils are set to reignite their interest in Atletico Madrid midfielder Saul Niguez as a potential Pogba replacement. United are said to be preparing a £63m (€70m) offer for the Spaniard.

- With Liverpool and midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum still yet to come to agreement on the terms of a new contract, Le10Sport reports that the Reds are lining up Lille's former Bayern Munich and Swansea man Renato Sanches to come in and fill the Dutchman's shoes.

- Liverpool are shopping for centre-back reinforcements after losing Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez to long-term injuries. Barcelona seemed primed to sign Manchester City fringe player Eric Garcia but Spanish outlet Diario AS says Liverpool are ready to swoop for the summer free agent.

- Arsenal are eying a move for Porto midfielder Fabio Viera, who has a £27m (€29.9m) release fee in his contract, according to Record. Meanwhile, Defensa Central are reporting that Gunners manager Mikel Arteta has put Lyon's Houssem Aouar and Madrid's Isco on his January wish list.

- One of Europe's brightest young prospects, Hungarian attacker Dominik Szoboszlai, will complete his move from Salzburg to RB Leipzig after a medical on Thursday, Fabrizio Romano reports. Arsenal, Madrid and Bayern Munich had shown interest in the 20-year-old.

Saul Niguez is fully aware that he needs to improve his performances, according to Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone.

Having reacted angrily after he was taken off in a Champions League clash with Salzburg last week, Saul had to settle for a place on the bench in the Madrid derby.

The 26-year-old came on with an hour played, though could not help Atleti avoid a 2-0 defeat to their city rivals.

Saul returned to Atleti's starting XI as captain on Wednesday, playing on the right as Simeone's team cruised to a 3-0 Copa del Rey win over minnows Cardassar.

It was a quiet display from the versatile midfielder, with Geoffrey Kondogbia and Lucas Torreira dominating the centre of the pitch for the visitors.

Saul attempted 56 passes, fewer than all but two Atleti outfielders from the starting line-up, completing 42 of them (75 per cent).

He lost possession 20 times – a team-high and second only to Cardassar goalkeeper Angel Pedro Sanchez Marin, and did not make any key passes.

Defensively, Saul also lacked his usual efficiency, regaining possession on only three occasions, seven fewer than Kondogbia and six less than Torreira, while he also failed to make a tackle, conceding one foul for which he was booked.

From eight LaLiga appearances so far this season, Saul is yet to score or provide an assist. Last season, he netted six times in the league, while creating 15 chances in total.

Asked about Saul's display, Simeone told reporters: "I was pretty clear yesterday. He is very important to us, he has always given us a lot from day one and the players go through different moments. 

"Saul knows that he has to improve, he works for it and we are waiting for him to give us a lot of things as he has always given us."

While Saul struggled out on the flank, Kondogbia and Torreira impressed their coach.

"I really liked both of them," he added. "They occupied the width of the pitch, they worked very well in circulation, Kondogbia tried the shot, Lucas had very good passes and it is a very good performance for both of us, which helps us and we need everyone."

Atletico Madrid eased into the second round of the Copa del Rey with a comfortable 3-0 victory over fourth-tier Cardassar.

Diego Simeone's side – who won the last of their 10 Copa del Rey titles in 2012-13 – crashed out in the round of 32 last season, losing 2-1 to minnows Cultural Leonesa.

They suffered no such embarrassment on this occasion, with the excellent Thomas Lemar putting them ahead following some impressive goalkeeping from Cardassar's Angel Pedro Sanchez Marin.

Ricard Sanchez got the second, Atleti's debutant right-back picking out the corner to put the visitors into a commanding lead, with Sime Vrsaljko on hand to wrap things up late on.

Atleti's early dominance would have told if not for Marin, who pulled off a superb double save to deny Lemar and Angel Correa.

Felipe fell foul of an unpredictable bounce from Cardassar's resulting counter, but Miguel Alvarez failed to take it under control, and Atleti made the hosts pay.

Having engineered space 25 yards out, Lemar sent a dipping right-foot strike beyond Marin and in off the left-hand upright.

Correa wasted a good chance to add to Atleti's lead, yet the visitors had their second when Sanchez curled a sublime effort into the top-right corner three minutes before half-time.

Lemar looked set to grab his second of the night when Correa slipped a low ball across the area, though Gabriel Roig Sureda defended admirably. 

Sergio Camello sliced wide of a gaping goal moments after coming off Atleti's bench, although it was a miss which mattered little.

With Sanchez having made way, his replacement Vrsaljko side-footed in from Lucas Torreira's cross to add further gloss for Atleti.

 

What does it mean? Atleti in the hat

There was no giantkilling for Cardassar, though the small group of fans allowed into Camp D'es moleter will nevertheless have revelled in a historic night for their club.

Atleti, meanwhile, will find out their opponents for the second round – which will take place in January – on Friday.


Lemar leaving his mark

Former Monaco star Lemar has never seemed to settle at Atleti, but has put in some impressive displays this term.

He has now scored in each of his last two starts in all competitions, as many as he had in his previous 46 matches as a starter.


Alvarez wastes his chance

Cardassar's forward did well to judge a bounce which Felipe did not, and looked all set to race through on goal only for his touch to let him down and subsequently squandered the hosts' best opportunity. 

In total, just two of Alvarez's 20 touches came in Atleti's area, before he was taken off in the 54th minute.


What's next?

The games come thick and fast for Atleti before Christmas, with Elche next up on Saturday in LaLiga before they face high-flying Real Sociedad.

Diego Simeone is confident any issues with Joao Felix and Luis Suarez will be addressed after the pair reacted badly to being substituted in Saturday's Madrid derby.

Neither Atletico Madrid forward played the full 90 minutes of the 2-0 defeat to Real Madrid, a result that ended a club-record 26-game unbeaten LaLiga run going back to last season.

Joao Felix was replaced on the hour mark, just before Jan Oblak's own goal took the game away from Atleti.

The Portugal forward failed to muster a shot or create a chance, making no touches of the ball in the Madrid penalty area.

Suarez was little better, seeing his only effort blocked and completing a meagre 10 passes before following his strike partner off the pitch with 17 minutes remaining.

The pair were each replaced by midfielders – Saul Niguez and Geoffrey Kondogbia – and made their frustration clear as they returned to the bench.

But speaking ahead of Wednesday's Copa del Rey trip to Cardassar, coach Simeone was not concerned by their dissatisfaction.

"We have been here for nine years and what we have to talk about will happen internally," he said. "The best way to resolve situations is by talking and obviously we talk."

Saul had Atleti's best attempt after replacing Joao Felix, seeing a close-range header well saved by Thibaut Courtois, but the Spain international is struggling this season.

He has yet to register a goal or assist, while his duel success rate is at a career-low 41.9 per cent and he is also averaging fewer recoveries per 90 minutes (5.1) than in any prior LaLiga season.

"He is not having his best moment," Simeone said. "I have no doubt that for us he is a very important player.

"He has competed since he joined the team as a young man. He has always been important and this year it will not be different.

"He is working to improve. He is strong; we will see the Saul we all know again."

The Copa game against Cardassar may provide opportunities for players such as Saul to rediscover some form.

"There are players who are waiting to have those minutes and each one will make the best use of it," Simeone said. "When Atletico Madrid play, they must be represented in the best possible way."

Christian Eriksen is attracting interest from Premier League clubs but the former Tottenham star reportedly only has eyes for Paris Saint-Germain.

The 28-year-old could be set to leave Inter in January following an underwhelming 12-month stint with the Serie A giants.

The Denmark international has started only 12 league matches since switching from London to Milan and a number of top European clubs are said to be circling.

TOP STORY – ERIKSEN KEEN ON PSG MOVE

Manchester United have an interest in recruiting Eriksen, who has fallen out of favour with Inter coach Antonio Conte, according to the Daily Star.

Arsenal were offered the service of the former Spurs playmaker but the Gunners have other priorities, according to the English newspaper.

Despite talk about a return to England, Eriksen is said to be planning to hold out for Ligue 1 champions PSG, who may be lining up a January swoop.

ROUND-UP

Arsenal want Stade Reims striker Boulaye Dia to solve their goalscoring issues, a report claims. Le10Sport reports the Senegal international has been identified as a Gunners target, but Everton, Marseille and Lyon are also said to be in the hunt.

- Mikel Arteta's side may also soon have another option in midfield. Spanish media outlet Marca is reporting that Atletico Madrid are planning on cutting Lucas Torreira's loan arrangement short in January after the Uruguayan failed to break into Diego Simeone's team.

Gareth Bale's future lies somewhere between Spurs and Real Madrid, according to Diario AS. The Welsh star plans to see out his contract in the Spanish capital next season if head coach Zinedine Zidane departs in the coming months. If the French coach stays, Bale may well be back in north London.

Diego Simeone took the blame for Atletico's derby defeat to Real Madrid in LaLiga on Saturday.

Atletico's 26-game unbeaten run in the league was ended after Casemiro's header and Jan Oblak's unfortunate own goal at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano.

Atletico coach Simeone accepted responsibility for the loss, although his side remain top of the table.

"The coach was wrong in his approach and in the search for the match," he told Movistar+, via AS.

"He tried to intervene to improve what he was seeing."

Atletico failed to register a single shot in the first half of a LaLiga game for the second time under Simeone.

Simeone said Madrid deserved praise for a performance that moved them to within three points of Atletico, who have also played one less game.

"The boys have been making a huge effort, the team had not lost for a long time and one day it would happen," he said.

"When a team is superior we must congratulate it. We came from a very important effort in the Champions League and something could turn everyone's head throughout the game."

Atletico face Cardassar in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday before hosting Elche three days later.

Zinedine Zidane believes his Real Madrid midfield stars have rediscovered their best form after an influential display in their 2-0 win over Atletico Madrid.

Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos started together in LaLiga for just the third time this season on Saturday and Zidane's team selection proved effective.

Madrid led through Casemiro's header and then extended their advantage courtesy of a Jan Oblak own goal in the second half.

Zidane was particularly taken by the displays of Modric and Kroos, with the World Cup winner completing 87 of 90 passes, the most in a league Madrid derby since at least 2005-06.

"We used [Modric and Kroos] to find the way out, it's true," said Zidane, who is unbeaten in seven games against Atleti. "We had to do it.

"And then playing fast from one side to the other and with diagonals, we found gaps. They're f***ing great, they're exceptional.

"Karim [Benzema], too, and Lucas [Vazquez], he is phenomenal, and [Dani] Carvajal, and our captain [Sergio Ramos], [Raphael] Varane. They are all very good."

The coach was further asked about the trio in the centre of the pitch, who now have competition in the form of Federico Valverde and Martin Odegaard.

"They are at the level of the three Champions Leagues we won in a row," he said. "They are playing at a very high level."

Victory against Atleti brought to an end an extremely successful week, having also won 1-0 at Sevilla and 2-0 against Borussia Monchengladbach to reach the last 16 of the Champions League.

"We confirmed what we did in the two previous games," said the coach, whose side restricted Atleti to one shot on target across the 90 minutes and no efforts at all before half-time.

"We competed very well throughout the game.

"But we don't have anything to celebrate because we haven't won anything. It's a good week.

"I'm happy for the players because they always believe in what they do. And when they get things done I'm happy. Let's enjoy and think about Tuesday [against Athletic Bilbao]."

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

An old adage it may be but it is one that can certainly be reasonably used in relation to Saturday's El Derbi as Real Madrid sauntered to a 2-0 triumph over rivals Atletico.

If a week is a long time in politics then it must feel like an eternity in football and certainly the events of the past seven days have markedly changed the outlook for Zinedine Zidane and his Real Madrid Galacticos.

Only 11 days have passed since a lifeless 2-0 defeat at Shakhtar Donetsk left Madrid's chances of qualifying from the Champions League group stages hanging as precariously as the last leaf on an autumnal tree.

That setback had followed the insipid 2-1 home loss to Deportivo Alaves - the latest deafening alarm bell in a LaLiga title defence that has also witnessed Los Blancos beaten on their own patch by Cadiz and dismantled 4-1 at Valencia.

Conversely, the situation across the capital could scarcely have been more rosy for Atletico.

Ten LaLiga games played, zero defeats, eight wins, only two goals conceded, not once trailing in any league game and comfortably into the Champions League 16 - even if a record of two wins, three draws and a defeat appears miserly compared to the 16 points accrued by pool winners Bayern Munich.

So, what to do in such a pickle of situation. For Zidane, the solution has been rather simple; stick to what you know.

Tried and tested help Madrid out the malaise

As with everything in football, indeed life, there is context behind Madrid's mixed fortunes thus far in 2020-21.

Injuries to key men have combined with a lethargy so completely at odds with their relentless drive to the title in the strangest of 2019-20 seasons.

Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard, Dani Carvajal, Nacho Fernandez, Eder Militao, Casemiro and Luka Jovic have all missed various amounts of game time, meaning it has been difficult for Madrid to go with a settled XI.

The issue is in the circus-like world of Real Madrid, context doesn't tend to buy you much time. Nor too does sentiment. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that had this week played out differently, Zidane's plethora of honours over two spells as coach would have done little to assuage a ruthless boardroom.

But a 1-0 win at Sevilla preceded a 2-0 triumph over Borussia Monchengladbach - a performance Zidane described as Madrid's most complete of the campaign - to secure a Champions League last-16 berth and keep the wolves at bay. 

And then this. The juiciest of cherries atop the cake, a derby win in the most comfortable fashion.

In each game, Zidane has gone with his most trusted midfield lieutenants in Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos - a combination that has played together just three times in total in LaLiga this season.

One of those games was the aforementioned Alaves setback, a loss that perhaps led some credence to the school of thought that an aging Madrid squad is in need of a reshape.

But the terrific trio remain crucial to Madrid and so it proved here. The centre of the park was dominated by Los Blancos, goalscorer Casemiro completed 45 of 48 passes (93.8 per cent success rate) and Modric 69 of 77 for 89.6 per cent. Incredibly, Kroos was successful with 87 of his 90 passes (96.7 per cent) - finishing with an assist and two key passes.

Even beyond the trusted triumvirate, the return of talismanic captain Ramos - absent against Alaves and Shakhtar - has again been so crucial for Zidane. He too barely put a foot wrong - making 63 of 67 passes and commanding a Madrid defence to a third straight clean sheet since returning.

Perhaps most notable for Zidane is the fact he has finally been able to get some fluency to his line-up. The only alteration from the prior two wins was the return of Carvajal - whose well controlled volley helped double Madrid's lead, albeit with a hint of fortune from the post and the back of Jan Oblak - at full-back, which pushed Lucas Vazquez onto the wing in place of Rodrygo Goes.

Madrid have now won two of the three games in LaLiga when Casemiro, Kroos and Modric have started. A deeper delve sees five wins from five when Thibaut Courtois, Ramos, Casemiro and Benzema are all in the same line-up.

Simeone's El Derbi hoodoo

You probably don't need to be a fly on the wall to imagine Simeone will have exchanged a few cross words at half-time as the most stoic of defences surrendered the lead to a goal so basic it could have been seen in park football.

A Kroos cross into the box and a planted Casemiro header - a simple set-piece the undoing of a defence usually as watertight as a window on the side of a cruise ship.

Even after that 15th-minute set-back, it was disappointing to see an Atleti attack of Luis Suarez and Joao Felix barely lay a glove on their opponents.

Joao Felix has been a forward reborn in LaLiga after a difficult debut campaign, aided by the arrival of his veteran strike partner from Barcelona, but on this occasion the Portuguese flopped. 

He failed to muster a single shot at goal and completed just 68.8 per cent of passes in the opposition half before he was hooked on the hour. In fairness, Suarez - now without a goal in his past three LaLiga matches against Madrid - fared little better registering just a single blocked shot.

In total there was just one Atleti effort on target, although Thomas Lemar's wastefulness 10 minutes into the second half when he side-footed wide with the goal gaping may have altered the course of the game.

Simeone has now seen his side fail to beat Madrid in nine straight LaLiga outings. The situation is still extremely optimistic, with Atleti top of LaLiga and three points clear of their third-place rivals having played a game fewer.

But any idea of a changing of the guard in Madrid can be parked for the time being.

Atletico Madrid will not dwell on how Saturday's derby defeat to Real Madrid may have impacted their LaLiga title aspirations, captain Koke says. 

Early leaders Atleti suffered their first league loss of the season, ending a club-record 26-game unbeaten run, as Casemiro's header and a Jan Oblak own goal proved their undoing. 

Koke accepted Madrid deserved victory as Atleti failed to attempt a single shot before the break for the first time in a derby since Opta records began in 2003-04. 

The visitors tested Thibaut Courtois only once in the second half, too, as Madrid closed to within three points of their city rivals at the summit. 

But Atleti, who had won their previous seven league games, still sit top and Koke is confident they can recover. 

"The league season is long and we're still top - we'll go again," said Koke, who attempted (75) and completed (69) the most passes of any Atleti player. 

"They have played better than us tonight, especially in the first half, and there are small margins that make the difference, but we continue and go again.  

"We almost drew the game. We're not thinking about who is going to win the league but just looking forward to the Copa del Rey coming up this week."

For Madrid, it was a third win and third clean sheet in succession - they saw off Sevilla before advancing in the Champions League in midweek - but Dani Carvajal, whose strike led to Oblak's own goal, agreed with Koke's assessment of the title race. 

"It has been a very difficult week for us," he said. "We played tonight against a tough Atletico side. We'll keep going - there are lots of games. 

"We're doing well, it is hard to know how the season will play out. It's not your typical season with injuries and things like that. 

"We were well on top tonight, pressed high, and they had two chances. We're still in a very early stage of the season, but it was important to win tonight and we have Athletic Bilbao during the week." 

The right-back, who celebrated the second goal by sucking his thumb and blowing kisses to the cameras, added: "I had a new baby this week and there was no better way to celebrate the birth than the way I did."

Real Madrid beat LaLiga pacesetters Atletico Madrid 2-0 in the derby on Saturday to close to within three points of the leaders and cap a brilliant week.

Pressure was building on Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane before his side won at Sevilla last weekend and then progressed in the Champions League by seeing off Borussia Monchengladbach.

The Spanish champions therefore headed into the clash with Atleti in high spirits and quickly established another lead through Casemiro's header.

Atleti had won their prior seven LaLiga matches and were unbeaten this term, but their record against Madrid is rather less impressive and Jan Oblak's unfortunate second-half own goal ensured a ninth consecutive league meeting with their neighbours without victory.

Madrid had the visitors on the back foot from the outset and only a vital fingertip touch from Oblak denied Karim Benzema as he cracked a 20-yard drive against the upright.

The opener arrived soon enough as Casemiro rose to head Toni Kroos' corner inside the near post, unimpeded following marker Hector Herrera's slip, although the game slowed thereafter.

Atleti had to wait until the 55th minute for their first effort of note but should have drawn level as Thomas Lemar ghosted in at the far post after Raphael Varane failed to cut out a low cross, only to stab a tame effort into the side-netting.

They were made to pay eight minutes later when Dani Carvajal rifled in a low shot from outside the area and the ball bounced off the post, against a prone Oblak and into the net.

A recovery from Diego Simeone's men always appeared unlikely and Thibaut Courtois saved well from Saul Niguez's close-range header to allow Madrid to coast home, almost netting a third as Oblak turned Lucas Vazquez's blast over the top.


What does it mean? Blancos back on track

Madrid had lost two of their previous three home league games coming into this contest, but the tide already appeared to have turned earlier in the week.

A vital victory at Sevilla was followed by the most accomplished display of the season so far as they leapfrogged Gladbach, setting the stage for a third win and a third clean sheet.

Atleti did not even have a shot before half-time - the first such instance in this fixture since Opta records began in 2003-04.

Madrid inspired by spine

Since Cristiano Ronaldo departed for Juventus, Madrid have relied heavily on the key men through the centre of their side: Courtois, Sergio Ramos, Casemiro and Benzema.

Six times this season that quartet have started together in LaLiga, six times they have won. Only one of the other half-dozen matches have ended in victory.

While Casemiro grabbed a goal, this was a particularly special outing for Benzema, who surpassed Roberto Carlos for the most Madrid appearances by a foreign player (528).

Atleti lament Lemar miss

Lemar last week netted his first club goal since April 2019, but Saturday brought a return to his frustrating prior form in LaLiga.

The France international came off the bench at half-time yet failed to create a single chance and passed up Atleti's clearest opportunity with one of his two shots.

What's next?

Madrid are quickly back in action at home to Athletic Bilbao on Tuesday, while Atletico have Copa del Rey duty against Cardassar the following day.

Zinedine Zidane said Real Madrid played their most complete game of the season against Borussia Monchengladbach – and one that probably saved his job.

Madrid's 2-0 victory secured their progress from a Champions League group for the 29th time in a row and most likely earned their coach a stay of execution from president Florentino Perez.

Zidane agreed afterwards his team have a knack for producing when it matters in big games, and he will need them to deliver again on Saturday.

Los Blancos host Atletico Madrid in the derby knowing victory will end their city rivals' unbeaten start to the LaLiga season and cut the gap to the leaders to three points.

Atleti have not beaten Madrid in eight league meetings, but Zidane's men have only won one of the previous seven at home. They will need another huge performance if that is to change.

 

AUTHORITARIANS

Madrid produced their best performance of 2020-21 against Gladbach. They might have managed less possession (64 per cent compared to 66) and fewer shots (19 compared to 22) than they did in the away fixture, but 2-0 actually flattered the visitors, for whom Yann Sommer made five excellent saves and who were rescued three times by the woodwork.

Part of Zidane's praise was down to their level of control. Madrid only faced seven shots and, excluding hoofed clearances, lost possession 113 times, 17 times fewer than they did in their 2-2 draw in Germany, when they snatched a point with two goals from the 87th minute onwards.

Their best league game of the season, a 3-1 win at Barcelona, showed similar levels of authority. That day, they hit the target with nine of their 15 shots and created 12 chances – they have only created more once this term (15 against Real Sociedad).

And, while they had only 48 per cent possession, Madrid lost the ball (again, excluding hoofs) just 104 times – their lowest figure in a league match this term – and attempted 22 tackles, their most in a game in 2020-21.

They will need something extra against Atletico, though: ruthlessness in front of goal.

 

THE OBLAK BLOCKADE

Excluding penalties and own goals, Madrid have scored 13 times in the league this season, but, based on Expected Goals (xG), they should have a further six goals. That is profligacy they cannot afford against Atletico.

Not only have Atleti avoided defeat in every game this season bar a trip to European champions Bayern Munich, they have only conceded twice in LaLiga in 10 matches. That is the best defensive record of any team in Europe's top-five leagues and equals the best goals-against tally at this stage of a season in Spain, matching Deportivo La Coruna in 1993-94.

However, Atleti's Expected Goals Against (xGA) for 2020-21 is actually nine; their differential of seven is the highest of any team. That shows you the imperiousness of goalkeeper Jan Oblak.

The Slovenia international has kept eight clean sheets in 10 league outings, saving 32 of the 34 shots he has faced. That remarkable 94 per cent save rate is, unsurprisingly, the highest in LaLiga. Based on xG from shots on target faced (xGOT), Oblak should have conceded seven goals this term; the five he has prevented puts him, again, at the top of LaLiga.

 

OVER TO YOU, KARIM...

It will certainly help Madrid and Zidane's cause if Karim Benzema can replicate his performance against Gladbach.

The striker has scored four goals from 30 shots in LaLiga, with his xG rating at 5.6, suggesting he has somewhat underperformed in front of goal domestically. However, against Gladbach, Benzema was far more lethal: he scored from two of his seven shots (four were on target and two blocked), misplaced just three of 58 attempted passes and created five chances for team-mates.

It was exactly the kind of showing Zidane would hope has boosted a player who has only scored once in 10 home league games against Atleti, his lowest tally against an opponent he has faced at least seven times.

 

A DIFFERENT BEAST

Madrid have grown accustomed to Atleti adopting a low block and swift counter-attack, but Diego Simeone has his side playing a little differently in 2020-21.

With Koke back in form, Joao Felix growing in stature and Luis Suarez leading the attack, Atleti are far more adept at patient attacking play. Look at build-up attacks, which measures open-play sequences containing 10 or more passes that end either in a shot or a touch in the opposition box: Atleti have registered 37, lower only than Madrid and Barca this term.

Still, reverting a little more to type could well prove key. Madrid have faced 25 direct attacks this term, the highest in LaLiga (a direct attack is an open-play sequence starting just inside the team's own half, has at least 50 per cent of movement towards the opponents' goal and ends in a shot or touch in their box). They also have the second-worst record in terms of progress against (14.95 metres) – in other words, teams cover more distance upfield per sequence against Madrid than they do against any other side except Cadiz (17.5 metres).

Control, clinical finishing and great care without the ball will all be required if Madrid are to claim another significant win and boost Zidane's long-term prospects a little more.

Real Madrid head coach Zinedine Zidane said neighbours Atletico Madrid are favourites to win LaLiga this season.

Madrid play host to unbeaten LaLiga leaders Atletico at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano in Saturday's derby, with Diego Simeone's visitors holding a one-point advantage over Real Sociedad atop the table.

Defending champions Madrid are six points off the pace and Zidane believes Atletico are in the box seat to claim their first league crown since 2013-14.

Asked if Atletico are favourites for LaLiga glory, Zidane told reporters on Friday: "Yes, for sure.

"That's what they're showing on the pitch. They're doing things well and competing. They've always been competitive and they're first right now.

"What interests us is what we're going to do. It'll be a good game of football and one that fans have marked in the diaries and one that the players want to play.

"What we want in each match is to show what team we are, without thinking about whether we'll win the league title. We want to win each match. We're competitive."

Atletico have failed to win in their last eight LaLiga games against Madrid – drawing five matches and losing three – after winning four of the previous six against their rivals in the competition.

But Atletico have won their last seven LaLiga games, keeping a clean sheet in six matches – last winning eight or more in a row in the competition in March-April 2014.

After winning his first LaLiga game as coach against Atletico's Simeone in February 2016, Madrid boss Zidane is unbeaten in his last six games against the Argentinian in the league.

"As usual we are always talking about finals, every game is a final here," Zidane added. "I see it as another opportunity to show what we are about as a team. 

"We know where we are. What we want is to play a great football match, just as we did the other day."

Marcos Llorente's development at Atletico Madrid does not come as a surprise to Zinedine Zidane, whose Real Madrid players will have to be wary of his potential impact in Saturday's derby.

Madrid host neighbours and LaLiga leaders Atletico at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano with Diego Simeone's men holding a one-point advantage over Real Sociedad at the top of the table.

The defending champions are five points further back having already lost three games in 2020-21.

Key to Atletico's unbeaten start has been the form of Llorente, who has four goals and two assists in the league. He has featured in every game, making six starts.

Llorente also scored a goal and registered an assist as Atletico came through the Champions League group stage and enjoyed an impressive performance against Barcelona in their 1-0 win over the Blaugrana last month.

He completed 90 per cent of his passes in the Barca half, only Koke (93.3) and Angel Correa (95) fared better among Atletico players to attempt more than one pass in the opposition half. Llorente was also one of four players to record two interceptions.

Sold to Atletico by Madrid in June last year, all signs point to Llorente having a significant role to play if Atletico are to claim a crucial win this weekend, with Zidane believing they are harnessing talent the midfielder has always had.

"He is not surprising me. He is a high-level player and he is showing another facet that he did not have at Madrid," Zidane told a media conference.

"It was known that he had a lot of quality and I am happy for him, nothing more."

Two Madrid players who may have to play the role of spectators in the derby are Marcelo and Isco.

Marcelo has made only five starts in LaLiga this season and has not featured in the Champions League since Madrid's opening group game.

Just three of Isco's eight league appearances have been starts and he has played only one game in the Champions League.

Neither featured in Wednesday's win over Borussia Monchengladbach that secured their place in the last 16.

Zidane said of that duo: "I will always have confidence and I will count on them.

"They have always shown everything they have done here. It is true that they have not played in the last games, but I have to choose, it is my job. I will count on them."

Asked about player fatigue amid this season's congested schedule, Zidane replied: "Each game is different and has its history.

"It is true that we have not made many changes in these two games, but it is a particular moment.

"Tomorrow there is another game and there may be five changes, maybe not. It depends on each game."

Jan Oblak has enjoyed seeing Atletico Madrid show another side to their play in recent weeks and is backing the unfortunate Diego Costa to make an impact upon his return.

Diego Simeone's squad sit on top of LaLiga and remain unbeaten in the Spanish top flight this season, raising expectations of a title push.

Their cause is aided by usual suspects Barcelona and Real Madrid suffering indifferent starts to their campaigns, albeit the latter sit only six points adrift of their neighbours ahead of Saturday's derby.

Still, Atleti go into the fixture on a seven-game winning run in the league, a period during which they have scored 15 goals and conceded just once.

Simeone has developed a more attacking style following the arrival of Luis Suarez, though they still remain a tough nut to crack. For Oblak, the key is adapting to the opponents.

"In the last seven league games we have shown another face that people are not used to," the Slovenia international - who has kept eight clean sheets in 10 league outings, saving 32 of the 34 shots he has faced - told Marca.

"With more possession, more chances, more time with the ball, which I like more.

"But for each team you prepare differently. You watch how you play, but also how your rival plays. The coach decides the best to take the game where he wants.

"No matter the players, the most important thing is the intensity and the desire to win. Against Madrid, against anyone. Only then can you get to the titles and where you want to go."

Joao Felix has led the way in terms of goals for Atletico, scoring eight in the league, while Suarez has contributed five since his switch from Barcelona.

Costa, in contrast, has managed just one goal in a season that so far has been blighted by injury, as well as time out of action due to coronavirus.

For Oblak, though, the Spain international remains a key member of Atleti's squad as they aim to compete at home and in Europe, having qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League in midweek.

"Diego has been unlucky this season. First with injury, then COVID. Now the complication, too," Oblak said.

"I'm sure he will help us, though. He is a special player. There are people who say that he cannot help, but whenever he is in the field he is dangerous.

"With him on the pitch you can expect things [to happen], like with Suarez.

"They are very important and I hope he returns as soon as possible. We need him. He's doing everything to get back 100 per cent from day one."

Atleti go into the derby looking for a first win in nine league games against their rivals, while an eighth successive LaLiga victory would be their best winning streak in the competition since 2014.

It was by no means a vintage LaLiga campaign for Atletico Madrid in 2019-20.

Atletico's lacklustre attack saw them fail to challenge Barcelona and Real Madrid for LaLiga glory, with their tally of 51 goals the worst of any team to finish in the European places.

Diego Simeone has managed to get more out of his team going forward this season and Atleti sit top of the table with 21 goals scored – the second-best record in the league – from their 10 games.

Not solely content with getting his team to find a more clinical streak, the Argentinian has managed to further tighten things up in a defence that only champions Madrid conceded fewer than last term.

Atleti have shipped just two league goals, matching Deportivo La Coruna's record from 1993-94 for the best start of any team at this stage of a campaign, and will be planning to make life difficult for Zinedine Zidane's men in El Derbi at Estadio Alfredo di Stefano on Saturday.

The press

Only Barcelona (237) and Elche (212) have had fewer defensive actions – defined as tackles, interceptions, fouls conceded, challenges and blocked passes – outside of their own final third than Atletico's 288 in LaLiga this season.

However, the opposition passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA) for Atleti (11.6) is lower than both Barca (12.3) and Elche (15.91), showing that when they do press high they are quicker to interrupt their opponents.

Atleti are by no means one of the highest-pressing teams in LaLiga, though, with their PPDA ranking 13th in the competition. Sevilla lead the way with 9.14.

Yet when they do regain the ball in more advanced areas, they tend to make it count. Of their 50 high turnovers, 12 have ended in shots. Only Madrid (13), Real Sociedad (14) and Villarreal (18) have more shot-ending high turnovers.

Limiting chances

Atleti are also impressive when it comes to stopping direct attacks, which Opta defines as open-play sequences that start just inside a team's own half and have at least 50 per cent of movement towards the opposition's goal and end in a shot or a touch in the opposition box.

Simeone's men have limited their opponents to just 10 direct attacks, with only Athletic Bilbao (eight) and Sociedad (nine) having allowed fewer, showing they are difficult to break down quickly and force teams to work to get into threatening areas.

When you do get a chance against Atletico it needs to be a good one in order to score. The two goals Simeone's men have conceded this season were the efforts with the highest expected goals (xG) they have faced in LaLiga this term – Jorge Molina (0.99) in a 6-1 victory over Granada and Ante Budimir (0.66) when they beat Osasuna 3-1.

As they have only let in two goals and have an xG against of 9.17, their differential is 7.17. That is the best in LaLiga, and Elche are the only other team with a differential greater than four.

 

A fine final line

It always helps having one of the world's best goalkeepers as well, and that is exactly what Atleti have in Jan Oblak.

Oblak's 34 saves in LaLiga this season are only the sixth most, but his save percent of 94 per cent is comfortably the best.

The difference he makes can be most clearly seen when using the xG on target (xGOT) model, though.

The shots on target Oblak has faced are enough for him to have conceded seven goals, so by only letting two past him he has been responsible for five goals.

His goals prevented figure of 5.07 is the best in the league but only marginally better than Edgar Badia of Elche.

 

All these factors have combined to give Atleti the meanest defence in the top five European leagues and make them look like LaLiga title contenders once again.

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