This Saturday the Estadio Vicente Calderon hosts the latest instalment of the Atletico-Real Madrid derby, eighty years on from the first ever meeting of the two giants of the Spanish capital. It is a clash that is rich in history and tradition, with a host of famous names, both Merengue and Rojiblanco, having graced the fixture over the years.
However, over the last decade, one man in particular has left an indelible mark on this classic rivalry: the Merengues' Raul Gonzalez. Famed for his exceptional technique, leadership skills and decisive finishing, it is an irony lost on no one that the iconic Real Madrid No7 actually started out with arch-rivals Atletico.
The 31-year-old is on top form as he prepares for what will be his 12th derby at the Calderon. After being criticised for inadequate preparation in pre-season and consequent sub-par performances early in the campaign, the Real Madrid captain kick-started his season two weeks ago at the Bernabeu with a two-goal burst that earned his side a point against Espanyol and kept them near the top of the table, just behind Valencia, Villarreal, Sevilla and Barcelona.
Having earlier grabbed a brace in Madrid's 7-1 mauling of Sporting Gijon, that double took Raul's tally for the season to four, two behind the current top scorer in La Liga, David Villa.
From Atletico cub to Real giant
This Saturday's showdown would be the perfect time for Raul to get his first away goal of this season, especially given the striker's close ties to both capital clubs. "
Now in his fourteenth season at the Bernabeu, the talismanic front-man has proved time and again his deep affection for the club. For many it comes as a surprise to learn he spent some of his formative years at cross-town rivals Atletico. After joining the Colchoneros as a raw teenager in 1990, Raul enjoyed two years on the banks of the River Manzanares before heading for the playing fields of Castellana when the Atletico academy closed down.
Very soon after arriving at Real, Raul was being groomed for top-flight football, and by the time he had turned 17, then coach Jorge Valdano had seen enough, handing him his La Liga debut on 29 October 1994 away to Zaragoza. In the very next season, a teenage Raul faced his former club for the first time and showed his trademark ruthlessness by scoring his first league goal at the Bernabeu against them.
From the 1995/96 season to the present day, Raul has not missed a showdown with Atletico, and his five derby goals at the Calderon have been worthy of the occasion.
Classic derby goals
Among that haul are two braces from the 1996/97 and 2002/03 seasons, with the opening salvo of the former particularly memorable. Picking up the ball near the edge of the box, he showed majestic close control to turn defender Juanma Lopez inside-out before beating keeper Jose Molina from the tightest of angles to start his side's comeback.
His most recent goal at the home of the Colchoneros, scored only last season, was equally memorable, coming as it did inside the first minute of play. Raul's strike paved the way for a 2-0 victory that day, with Ruud van Nistelrooy grabbing the second.
"This game has come at a good time. After not playing for a fortnight, I can't wait to take on Atletico and I'm very hopeful we can win and stay near the front," Raul said in the build-up. Having being overlooked by La Roja for their recent 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifiers, the striker will be hoping he can continue his fine club form and perhaps even force himself back into contention for a place with his beloved Spain.