Atletico content with derbi draw as Thibaut Courtois rescues Real Madrid vs. former side
MADRID -- Three thoughts from the Bernabeu after Real Madrid's 0-0 La Liga draw with Atletico Madrid:
1. A point apiece but Atletico leave happier
Goalkeepers Thibaut Courtois and Jan Oblak were unexpectedly to the fore as Saturday's Madrid derbi finished scoreless, with Atletico Madrid leaving the Bernabeu having deserved at least a point after carving out the better chances, and Real Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui's worries mounting.
Atletico edged the opening stages and could have gone ahead when Antoine Griezmann raced clear, but Courtois denied his former teammate with his face. With Madrid's passing game not clicking, their best chance came at a set piece, but Gareth Bale's side-foot volley flew just wide.
After Atletico had a strong penalty claim for a handball against Casemiro waved away, Courtois again spread himself expertly to deny another ex-teammate, when Diego Costa was put clear by Griezmann.
With Bale departing with yet another muscle injury at half-time, replacement Dani Ceballos helped push the game in Madrid's direction. Another man in midfield saw Lopetegui's side match up better, and the youngster's quick feet drew fouls and yellow cards for both Juanfran and Thomas Lemar.
With the tide having turned, Modric's long-range effort whistled wide and Marco Asensio should really have done better when free near the penalty spot, but Oblak denied him. Ceballos was again involved as Dani Carvajal was freed inside the box, with Oblak forced into action again.
Atletico rode out the storm, and chants of "Ronaldo, Ronaldo" around the Bernabeu will not have been enjoyed by Lopetegui, who gave 18-year-old starlet Vinicius Junior his La Liga debut in an unexpected late throw of the dice.
The point apiece was a fair result, but Atletico will have left the happier, with a feeling that Simeone's side are moving nicely. Meanwhile, Lopetegui is still awaiting a big signature performance from his side, and now has further injury worries amid a growing sense this will be a season of transition for Madrid.
2. Courtois denies his former side
Former Atletico goalkeeper Courtois had mixed fortunes at the Bernabeu during his three seasons as a Rojiblanco: sent off and seeing his team lose 4-1 on his first visit but winning a Copa del Rey final and La Liga game before returning to Chelsea.
The Belgium international shone on his first derbi for his new club, being Madrid's standout player in the first half, when his saves from Griezmann and Costa were crucial. For both he stood up a long time and spread himself expertly, giving the forwards very little space to aim at.
Fortune played a part, especially with Griezmann's dinked effort coming back off his head. But each time he forced the issue with the forwards in demonstrations of excellent goalkeeping.
Courtois has quickly established himself as Lopetegui's first choice in La Liga, but Keylor Navas has so far kept the gloves for the Champions League. The coach has yet to publicly confirm a rotation policy, however, and Navas could be just one high-profile mistake away from prolonged bench time.
3. Atletico show off title credentials
Both summer signings to start here made favourable impressions on Atletico, and showed how Simeone could be successfully evolving his team to play a more possession-based game.
Former Monaco man and €80 million signing Thomas Lemar caught the eye early on, drifting inside from his right-wing position and driving forward into the space between Casemiro and Toni Kroos. There were also some nice link-ups with his France teammate Griezmann, although no real end product.
Holding midfielder Rodri was just as impressive, ensuring that Luka Modric was well policed, and Karim Benzema could not drop deep to link the play. On the ball, Rodri also made a significant contribution, with his simple but intelligent passing allowing Atletico to keep possession much better than in past seasons.
The former Villarreal player was central to one 60-second-plus spell of keep-ball, which frustrated the home fans and probably led directly to Ceballos being called upon at half-time when Bale could not continue.
Although both were eventually replaced as Simeone's side battened down the hatches in the second half, these additions make Atletico serious challengers for the title. Having overcome a dodgy start, they are now in fourth spot in the table, just two points off joint-leaders Madrid and Barcelona.
This season's Spanish title race already looks like being a close-run, tight affair. And even with Rodri and Lemar adding some extra class to the team, that is just the type of contest that Simeone's side thrive in.