In the final minute of the 279th Madrid derby, the fans in the south end of the Santiago Bernabéu began to belt out their version of Bad Moon Rising, the opening bar asking Atlético how they were feeling. High in the opposite corner, where just a hundred away supporters sat in silence, all too aware that they faced a long wait in the cold before they began the walk home, the answer was: pretty flat. Their team had not played badly but an early goal in either half, first from Karim Benzema then from Marco Asensio, was enough to defeat them again. Worse, they knew it was probably enough for the defence of their league title to be derailed in December.
Madrid knew that too, the embraces at the end expressing how big a step this was. Victory leaves them eight points clear of Sevilla at the top, nine above Real Betis, and 13 over Atlético and Real Sociedad. In case you are wondering, it leaves them 18 points above Barcelona, who have other problems to worry about. There is no league for them. The question is whether there is a league for anyone else; although Sevilla and Atlético have a game in hand, the answer is probably not.
Fourteen days may have finished it. One by one the contenders came and one by one they fell. Sevilla, Athletic, Real Sociedad, even Inter: Madrid beat them all. Here they beat Atlético too on a night when Luka Modric’s name rang round, Thibaut Courtois made his statutory saves and Vinícius Júnior was decisive again, the most dynamic player in La Liga. The Brazilian made both.
The first came early, Atlético’s bright opening over almost as soon as it had begun. Twice Koke gave the ball away and if Madrid still had a long way to go, starting by the halfway line, they also have Benzema and Vinícius who combined to carve open another opponent, a moment all it took.
Asensio released the Brazilian just as Felipe doubted whether to take a step up. By the time he had decided it was too late and Vinícius almost gently lifted the cross towards Benzema – that calmness and precision a portrait of his progression.
Benzema was the only man in the area in white and there were seven of them in stripes but still he found space, guiding a superb volley into the bottom corner beyond Jan Oblak. He was not fully fit and would have to make way at half-time, his work here done.
Madrid were where they wanted to be, Atlético where they have been too many times recently – this was the 11th consecutive derby in which they had failed to win, and they appeared conscious of that in the remainder of the first half. Ten minutes later Koke was invited to shoot, the result offering a reason why, and for a little while not a huge amount else was happening.
An Antoine Griezmann free-kick sharply saved by Courtois lacked the power to really trouble before Oblak blocked Vinícius at the near post, the attacker calling for the fans to raise the roof.
From Atlético’s perspective something had to change. From Madrid’s, it did too but not through choice. Benzema, who had hurried back from injury, was withdrawn at half-time while Diego Simeone sent on João Félix and Thomas Lemar. Within five minutes they had worked an opening, Courtois stopping Félix’s shot. The Portuguese then filtered a neat pass to Mateus Cunha, dashing towards the six-yard box. This effort was more difficult to deal with but Courtois saved again, another one for the collection.
Next Félix almost released Cunha with a clever volley across the pitch and then he supplied Lemar just inside the area, but a moment’s indecision was sufficient for the clear shooting opportunity that opened before him to close again. This was different, or so it seemed; instead, it proved to be the same. Atlético had started well, pushing Madrid into their own area, only to be caught once more. A long ball was laid off by Luka Jovic for Vinícius and he found Asensio to sweep into the net.
There was still over half an hour to go and chances too. Mario Hermoso headed over, Luis Suárez just failed to reach from close range and Courtois twice saved from Lemar. But any real belief had drained from them with the second goal, Madrid were able to manage those moments, and Atlético increasingly sensed that they just were not going to score. And when Courtois saved a thumping, close-range Félix volley with his face in the last minute, it was done. That had hurt but he was feeling fine, thanks for asking, his fists clenched in celebration at the final whistle.