"Cholo, don't go! Cholo, stay!" they sang as the Madrid derby reached the 90th minute. These weren't Atletico fans, though. There were only a handful of them inside the Bernabeu anyway. These were Real Madrid supporters bellowing an ironic chant that started behind the goal at the south end and had soon spread everywhere, reverberating around the stands. Real Madrid were about to beat Atletico 1-0 in a league game here for the first time since 2012, and their fans were determined to enjoy it.
After the game, Diego Simeone insisted that he hadn't heard the song. But he did, surely, and it must have hurt a little. When Simeone took his place on the Atletico bench in Dec. 2011, Real Madrid got what they had asked for: a dignified opponent for a decent derby. Since then, this game -- whether played in Madrid, Lisbon, Milan, Tallinn or Jeddah -- has rarely been pretty. But it has always been competitive.
This game was competitive too, especially in the first half when Atletico were the better team, even as the game followed the familiar Madrid derby script of few chances or moments of quality. Thibaut Courtois saved from Vitolo, Angel Correa hit the post, and Atletico could have had a penalty for Casemiro's clumsy challenge on Alvaro Morata.
In the end though, the game slipped away from them -- and the most worrying thing for Simeone must have been how meekly Atletico seemed to accept the turning of the tide. In the second half they seemed to run out of steam, and ideas, and crucially self-belief, something that has tended to be their greatest asset since the Argentine manager's arrival. If Simeone has lost the ability to make his players believe, they really are in trouble.
By contrast, Zinedine Zidane seems to add to his managerial skill set all the time. Here, it was one half-time decision from Zidane that changed everything. Or rather, two decisions. A double substitution, something Zidane never ever does, saw Lucas Vazquez and Vinicius Junior replace Toni Kroos and Isco. Suddenly Real Madrid now had width and pace and Vinicius proved crucial to the game's only goal: his clever pass allowing Ferland Mendy to get in behind and find Karim Benzema to open the scoring.
There are certain things we've come to expect from the Madrid derby. Goals are not among them. El Clasico is the big La Liga game that consistently delivers a spectacle. The Madrid derby does not. That said, Simeone has helped give this match its own identity, as his Atleti have taken on a series of Real coaches -- Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Rafa Benitez, Zinedine Zidane, Julen Lopetegui, Santiago Solari, Zidane again -- and gone toe-to-toe.
Entering this match, it felt like things might be changing, with Real Madrid top of La Liga and unbeaten in 20 games, while Atleti stumbled from one crisis to another, their Spanish Supercopa final defeat followed by a league loss at Eibar, a humiliating Copa del Rey exit at Cultural Leonesa and a goalless draw with Leganes.
Atleti's first-half display had suggested a reversion to the previous narrative, but ultimately, failure to win here meant a five-game winless streak for Los Rojiblancos, their worst ever run during Simeone's reign. He is being questioned in a way he hasn't before, with the manager forced to defend his record and his project amidst speculation the end of an era could be coming.
"We played a good game" he insisted afterwards. "The first half was really good, we had chances and didn't take them. Now we have to keep working and think about the next game."
Meanwhile, Zidane is in as strong a position as ever. The two coaches are such an intriguing contrast of styles, personalities and ideas, even if their teams' battles on the pitch haven't often been thrilling. Simeone now faces arguably the biggest challenge of his coaching career, while Zidane looks to confirm what many thought impossible -- making this Real Madrid team even better, and more successful, than his last.