Espanyol 0-3 Real Madrid
0-1 Granero, 39’
0-2 Guti, 77’
0-3 Ronaldo, 90’
This was a constant refrain from the Spanish language announcers and the theme of most of the match, as the Merengues struggled to hold their nerve at the back, occasionally looking as porous as SpongeBob Square Pants in defense. It should be noted that two of the team’s first choice defenders – Pepe and Sergio Ramos – were out of the line-up, which will take its toll on any squad. But with two Spanish internationals deputizing for them, in Albiol and Arbeloa, Madrid have little to complain about. Regardless of any caveats about missing players, though, the key word for this game was “composure,” which was sorely lacking over much of the pitch against Espanyol.
Despite the clear gap in quality (and paychecks) between the two teams, Espanyol were easily the better side for much of the game. Aside from a bad miss that Metzelder sent over the crossbar, the Periquitos had the best chances in the game’s early stages. Casillas prevented his side from going 1-0 down inside the first half hour when he saved Moises Hurtado’s shot from close range. Hurtado only had such a clear-cut opportunity because of horrible defending by Madrid, who left Luis Garcia completely unmarked near the back post, allowing him a free header back in front of goal to the waiting Hurtado. Fortunately for Los Blancos, Iker’s legs bailed them out and kept the scoreline even. Soon thereafter, Raul Tamudo narrowly missed getting his head onto an Ivan Alonso cross after some more shaky defending.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, they struck, on a lovely little one-two between Kaka and Granero. El Pirata, who was brilliant all game, secured the ball nicely, dropped it off to Kaka, then darted into the box to receive the return pass and blast it past Kameni. It was very similar to the first goal against Deportivo in Jornada 1, when Madrid suddenly found their attacking boots on a double-nutmeg pass by Kaka to a streaking Benzema. That time, the post intervened and Raul was required to clean up the rebound. This time, Granero made no mistake with the shot to give his side the advantage.
The second came only after numerous chances for Espanyol to equalize, when Kaka dribbled around three defenders on the left, got his nose out in front, and laid it off for Guti to slot home. It was a lovely play by Kaka, who looks to be the team’s most important creative player so far. And finally, substitute Cristiano Ronaldo got his first goal from open play for the team when Guti played a perfect through ball to the world’s most expensive (and most precisely coiffed) football player. Ronaldo streaked with it down the right hand side and coolly put the ball between Kameni’s legs for the goal. It was once again refreshing to see his joy and relief at scoring for his new team, as his new price tag has appeared to weigh on him since arriving in Spain. A couple more goals like that, and those worries will be a thing of the past, like his relationship with Sir Alex at the end of his ManU tenure.
So in the end, they got the goals and outclassed an opponent they had every right to beat, but they made it as nerve-wracking as possible along the way. I couldn’t count how many times I grimaced as a ball rolled past numerous Madrid defenders or an Espanyol player dribbled with ease into the heart of the defense. They looked quite unorganized and, consequently, exceedingly vulnerable to the counterattack. At times, even clearing the ball became an exercise in futility and difficult to watch. It was more Espanyol’s profligacy in front of goal than Madrid’s defense that kept them off the scoreboard, but I suppose they’ll take a clean sheet any way they can get it.
In their first two games, Real Madrid have shown both how high they can go and how much they still have to do to attain such heights consistently. That tricky bit of composure is still clearly lacking, and it hurts the defense more than the offense. They have enough astronomical talent in the attack to come out with little unity or plan and still score goals. The back line is not quite so blessed with riches, but even if it were, defense is another proposition altogether. Individual stars can do little on their own to shut down an opponent, instead requiring a coherent system to which all subscribe in order to excel. It is this system which Madrid lacks at this point, and it is this which Pellegrini must correct, and soon, if he wants to content with Barcelona (and keep his job).
To be fair, this is an entirely understandable predicament for a team that was hastily assembled over the summer and which tends to feature between five and eight new faces in the starting eleven. They were always going to need time to gel, and as long as they are winning, they will probably be granted leniency from the demanding home fans. With lots of players resting due to international action midweek and a looming Champions League clash, they were also fielding somewhat of a B team – if such a term can be applied to a line-up that features the likes of Kaka, Benzema, and Xabi Alonso, but you get the picture. San Iker may just be enough to save them until they get their act together, but this can only go on for so long and the defensive deficiencies cannot be bailed out indefinitely by offensive firepower. At some point, Real Madrid are going to have to learn how to defend. I suspect that with time and the return of some much needed familiar faces, they will settle into their roles and play at least competently together, which is not something that could be said about them in this performance.