MADRID, SPAIN – Real Madrid goes into Saturday's "derbi" with Atletico Madrid at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in the unusual position of being, if not scared, then wary of what might happen at the hands of its city neighbors.
The biggest concern at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu is whether Gareth Bale is physically - and mentally - ready to face a tough Atletico side in red-hot form and two points ahead of Madrid in the early Primera Division table.
The $130 million Welsh winger scored on his debut for Madrid in the 2-2 draw at Villarreal on Sept. 14, then played another half hour from the bench at Galatasaray three days later, but has sat out the two games since.
He was due to make his home debut last weekend at home to Getafe , but pulled out just before kick-off having felt a problem in his left thigh. Tests did not pick up any serious issues, and both club president Florentino Perez and coach Carlo Ancelotti suggested Bale was not really injured, but had not felt comfortable enough to start the game. Ancelotti then rejected a theory Bale was unprepared to play as he had not done the usual preseason fitness work due to his transfer from Tottenham taking the whole summer to complete.
"He played 60 minutes in his first game at Villarreal ," he said. "He played 30 minutes at Galatasaray. He had no problems after that game, but then had a small problem [before Getafe]. It was not a muscular injury, but we just did not want to risk putting him out on the field."
In-form strikers Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego da Silva Costa will lead their respective squads in attack on Saturday. (Image: WhoScored.com ).
If Bale is coming warily towards the weekend, Atletico's players and fans are looking forward eagerly to the game.
Before last season's Copa del Rey final meeting, "Los Colchoneros" were without a win in the fixture in 25 'derbis' since 1999. But that streak was ended in style at the Bernabeu in May, when Diego Simeone's players outbattled and outplayed their more illustrious opponents and deservedly celebrated winning the trophy in their neighbors' own backyard.
Simeone's side has now started the new campaign in even better form - and it sits alongside Barcelona atop the standings after six games with a perfect record.
The loss of former fans' favorite Radamel Falcao has been covered by the purchase of Spain international David Villa, and especially the form of fellow forward Diego Costa. Costa is on fire - his double in Tuesday's 2-1 home win over Osasuna means he has seven goals already this term. The Brazilian is playing so well that national coach Vicente del Bosque is currently trying to persuade him to switch allegiance and declare for Spain.
Atletico are now thinking so positively that just a draw at the Bernabeu would be a disappointing result, says its goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. "We have a great team and we know how to beat them," Courtois told local reporters on Thursday. "It is three points more, it is another final. As a footballer, I never play to draw a game, but to win."
Courtois added: "Can we maintain our current form? There are players who will have good moments and others who will not but I think that the whole team can maintain the current level. The team is still good with one or with the other."
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Courtois' main concern on Saturday will be stopping Cristiano Ronaldo, who has beaten the Belgian nine times in their seven meetings. CR7 also has seven goals in three games since signing his new $26 million a year contract a fortnight ago. An impressive stat, but one which shows how Madrid have depended on its Portuguese superstar in recent games.
Good fortune has also played a part for Madrid, which is struggling with a tactical transition to Ancelotti's possession-based style, having played a counter-attacking game game under Jose Mourinho in recent years. These issues were evident during Wednesday's last gasp victory at Elche -- when the newly promoted team was furious with a last minute penalty given to Madrid, which Ronaldo converted for a 2-1 win.
Even Barcelona's Gerard Pique -- watching on TV -- joined in the debate postgame via Twitter. But Ancelotti preferred to focus on his team having again under-performed. "We will not win the derbi playing like we did tonight," the Italian said. "Everyone knows that. We need to play with more intensity."
Carletto must now shake up his side for Saturday -- and consider if an uncertain Bale is the man to bring the intensity to the team. New attacking starlet Isco is already undroppable, while Angel di Maria's work-rate and determination would be useful against an Atletico side who will not be afraid to get stuck in.
A lot more than local pride is at stake -- should Madrid lose on Saturday they will be five points off the pace in a three-way La Liga title race.
It seems obvious that, if you have the world's most expensive player, you use him. But given the situation Ancelotti must now decide if he can afford to risk doing that.