November 29, 2010 remains infamous for all who remember what took place in the soccer world that day. The date itself probably doesn't ring a bell, but if I showed you a picture of an elated, triumphant Gerard Piqué stabbing the air with his raised hand, each of his digits spread wide, it'd probably come to you. If that doesn't help, think Barcelona, Real Madrid, and La Manita.
What happened on that day inside the Camp Nou was a beatdown as dominating as it was stunning. It was the first Clásico under new Real manager José Mourinho, and The Special One's then-undefeated side threatened to finally realize club president Florentino Pérez's dream of taking Barcelona's magical run under Pep Guardiola and snapping it to pieces. Instead of the powerful Blancos flattening the Blaugrana imps, Barça's little wizards spun spell after spell to evade, confound, and humiliate their chief rivals en route to a 5-0 shellacking.
That match was the most complete defeat—Pérez even called it the worst loss in the club's history—many of us ever expected to see the mighty Real Madrid suffer. And while the stakes were maybe not quite as high this weekend—nothing compares to El Clásico, after all—the way Atlético Madrid clobbered Real 4-0 at the Calderón immediately called to mind the debacle of a little over four years ago.
We knew Atlético should be considered favorites coming into the game, but we definitely didn't see that coming. Atlético played a perfect game from the first whistle to the last, at no point leaving even a smidgen of hope that the match would end any other way.
As usual, it was Atlético's ferocious defensive pressure that laid the groundwork for what they ended up creating. Atléti prefer to sit back a little deeper than the average high-pressing team, but it's mainly so that when they do decide to charge down the ball, they're at a full sprint by the time they reach the ball carrier in his own half. Watching them press is like watching a pack of wolves stalking prey. First is their synchronized jogging, where they strafe side to side while the ball slides harmlessly in front of them. If an opponent sits too long on the ball or tries moving forward a little, a Rojiblanco player will trot at him to head him off. Once the player makes that one fatal turn away from a convenient passing option or takes a heavy touch, the whole pack comes to life, two or three rushing towards the ball and the others strangling any potential outlet pass.
More often than not, the hunters take what they came for. Even when they miss, their opponents usually can only hoof the ball deep to be intercepted or ushered out of bounds. The comparison between Atlético's and Real's tackles, from FourFourTwo, shows the deadly efficacy of their pressing the entire length of the pitch:
It only took 14 minutes for Atlético to be rewarded for their dominance with the opener, and a few minutes later Saúl Ñíguez's wicked bicycle kick made the scoreline a closer reflection of the pummeling taking place on the pitch:
For the entire first half, there were only two brief spells—first around 30 minutes in, then 10 minutes later—when Real looked like a competent La Liga team, let alone the league leaders. It was as if, after being terrorized into long balls forward to escape the ferocious pressing, then being harried into a turnover or wayward cross if they did somehow make it through forest and into the final third, it took some time for Real's players to remember what to do when they did have time to think with the ball. As soon as those moments of composure manifested themselves, though, Atlético sensed Real growing in confidence and went right back into chasing their rivals into a panic.
Still, by halftime, Real Madrid were only down two goals—in large part because of a couple fortunate calls by the refs, who ruled in the defense's favor on a tight offside call right before Griezmann floated a shot over Iker Casillas's head and also ignored an obvious Sami Khedira handball in the box. It didn't feel likely, but snatch a goal and Real would be right back in it.
And the visitors started the second half better, too. It looked like Atlético would slink back into their patented steel fortress, building two impenetrable walls just in front in their penalty box to concede possession yet prevent any truly dangerous chances. Real's midfield had more time and space in the cramped middle of the park than at the beginning, but they still couldn't produce anything of note.
Like in the first half, this period of Blanco improvement was short-lived. About 10 minutes after the break, Atléti realized they could shut Real down defensively while still sending more men forward in attack, and so the onslaught began anew. Antoine Griezmann—whose movement absolutely shattered Real's back line the entire match—finally got the goal that felt imminent when he scored in the 67th minute with his fourth shot in about a ten minute stretch. At 3-0, the question was no longer if the shocked and tired Real could muster a comeback and only how much Atléti would rub it in.
Of course, Mario Mandžukić capped off his own impressive display with a headed (obviously) goal in the 89th minute, sending the Atlético players, coaches, and entire stadium into raptures. Carlo Ancelotti called it the worst defeat of his Real tenure. Pérez and the club's board were reportedly so disgusted that they're considering Ancelotti's fit as manager not even a year after he won the Champions League over this same side.
It was the first home La Liga win the other team from Madrid managed over the local giants in 17 years. It was the first time the other team from Madrid had won both league encounters since the 1950-51 season. More important than all of that, with this season's run of results and this commanding performance especially, it was the first time in the club's modern history when Atlético turned Real into the other team from Madrid.
Think back again to the Manita game. The Barça of then shares more in common with the Atléti of today than pasting Real at home. Both teams faced a new and improved Real that many considered the best team in the world heading into the match, and both teams were still in the midst of their greatest moments in club history, lead by iconic former players who rescued them from times of hardship and took them to heights never before seen.
Before that game in late November 2010, many wondered if we were finally seeing the end of that Xavi-Iniesta-Puyol-Messi era, and if the ruthless pragmatism of Real would be the ones to expose their decline. Instead of falling off, that team spring-boarded off the win over the then-league leaders towards their second consecutive La Liga title and Guardiola's second European Cup as manager. Like that team, many wondered if this Atlético squad could recapture even the faintest glimpse of the miraculous domestic title-winning season and Champions League run of last year.
Real could've slammed the door shut on Atlético's La Liga hopes with a win, as a 10 point gap would've most likely been insurmountable. Rather than acquiesce to their fate as Spain's third team, though, capable of stretches of success yet ultimately relegated to also-ran status due to the financial realities, Atlético slayed the embodiment of their obsolescence in historic fashion. This era of Atlético isn't over, and maybe it's just begun.