There is only one team that Real Madrid could have been drawn against that would have made them serious underdogs. Sure, they might not be picked to beat Barcelona or Bayern Munich, but those draws wouldn't have produced the same kind of existential dread that a draw against Atlético Madrid does.
While Atléti simply don't have the depth or individual brilliance to crush La Liga sides with the same regularity as Spain's big two, they're a team perfectly constructed for knockout football. They pushed Real Madrid to extra time in the Champions League final last season, and had it taken place over two legs, Atléti probably would have come out on top.
Atléti had no problem beating Real in the Copa del Rey, recording a 2-0 win at home before scoring an away goal in the first minute at the Santiago Bernabeu to lock up the tie. They probably won't find this matchup nearly as easy as that one, but they should probably still be considered the favorites to progress. Madrid's midfield doesn't protect their defense and Atléti is perfectly set up to sit deep and play fast counters through the middle -- which is exactly how Real Madrid should be played against.
Are Atléti a better team than Real? No, absolutely not. They're just a complete matchup nightmare for Los Merengues.
Key matchup: Gabi vs. Isco
Assuming Isco doesn't run into a brick wall and James Rodriguez doesn't instantly turn into the best attacking midfielder on earth in his first game back from injury, Isco is going to be Real Madrid's most advanced midfielder for at least the first leg of this tie. He'll be the man tasked with unlocking the Atléti defense with incisive passes to the front three, while also getting pressure on Gabi to prevent him from starting the Rojiblancos' dangerous counters.
One to watch: Luka Modric
While Real Madrid certainly could do with a defensive midfielder or two, they're certainly less embarrassing defensively when Luka Modric is fit and on form. Even if he got his ankles broken hilariously during his substitute appearance, he was still his team's best player in the final half-hour against Schalke by an outrageous distance. Despite his small stature and relative lack of pace, he's the most complete midfielder in the world, and Real Madrid might only go as far as he can take them. He has to run the game in both transition phases.
Real Madrid might have the best collection of talent in the world, but their balance is questionable, and they've been exposed by Atlético Madrid this season. Knockout football sets up a great matchup for Atléti against Los Merengues. Atléti win by multiple goals.
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