Villarreal 0-2 Real Madrid
0-1 Ronaldo, 2’
0-2 Kaka (pen), 73’
With four wins in four league games and three clean sheets in the bunch, it’s statistically difficult to find fault with Real Madrid’s early season performances. They have ostensibly done everything right in their opening games: they have incorporated all the new faces into the mix, gotten big contributions from old favorites like Raul and Guti, and seen their world record signing get off to a record-breaking start.
Yet there were troubling signs amidst all the success. They didn’t look like much of a team even in their comfortable wins, only playing in sync with each other for brief stretches. The central midfield looked woefully bereft of ideas after injury knocked out Xabi Alonso for a few games. And that defense – god help them, they were trying, but they seemed to have no idea who was supposed to be where, looking particularly susceptible to counterattacks and set pieces.
In short, they looked exactly like they should: like a team full of new personnel searching for its identity. Everyone was adamant in the preseason that it would take time for the superstars to gel into a cohesive unit, but with two of the last three FIFA World Players of the Year, it’s hard not to get carried away in your expectations, hoping to see them set the world on fire from their first moments together. Instead, they showed flashes of brilliance interspersed with long stretches of almost catatonic malaise, uncertain in possession and positioning.
Wednesday’s game against Villarreal showed the beginnings of progress and a hint of what Manuel Pellegrini is trying to establish with this team. It was perhaps their least spectacular performance, a relatively pedestrian 2-0 win away to Villarreal, but the steadiness of their play was more impressive than any of the fireworks of previous games.
That’s not to say that this one didn’t have fireworks of its own, though. It took less than two minutes for Cristiano Ronaldo to get off the mark, sprinting upfield before darting inside and raking one past Diego Lopez to open the scoring. It was the second time in as many games that CR9 scored inside the first two minutes, both times on strikes as fabulous as his own sense of style. As in the game against Xerez, they took their foot off the gas a bit after the early goal, but this time they looked more confident in possession and sure of their ability to dominate the game with or without more goals. They were helped in this regard by the sending off of Gonzalo in the 35th minute after he picked up his second yellow on a high kick to Kaka’s midsection.
Villarreal got themselves into the game a little more early in the second half, but to their credit, Real’s defense handled the attacks of the Yellow Submarine with considerable fluency. This was no mean feat, considering the back line had to be reshuffled at the last second when Garay suffered an injury in the pre-game warm-up, forcing Sergio Ramos to central defense and Lass Diarra to unfamiliar territory at right back. I’m sure Pellegrini will be thrilled to have both Sergio and Pepe back in the line-up come Saturday when they take on Tenerife, as the Portuguese international has finally finished serving his 10-game suspension for his notorious Getafe meltdown. They’re still not 100%, as Arbeloa is carrying a knee injury, but with Ramos, Pepe, and Albiol, they have the makings of a staunch defense.
Madrid put the game away on a disputable penalty call by Manuel Mejuto Gonzalez in the 73rd minute. Marcelo made a good run to the end line, and when he attempted to send it back across goal, the ball struck Angel’s raised arm as he slid in to make the challenge. Having already gotten his goal for the game, Ronaldo stepped aside to let Kaka take the PK, which he converted, sending the keeper the wrong way and rolling it into the net. It was the Brazilian’s first goal for the club.
It was really a rather tepid effort by Villarreal in their first match against their former manager, but that shouldn’t take away from the improvements Real appeared to have made in this match. Guti, who started the match with the captain’s armband, helped control play for Madrid and greatly contributed to the effort to stabilize some of the team’s shaky tendencies. Cristiano’s crossing left a lot to be desired, and Higuain is a long way off linking up with his new midfield providers, but all in all it was a promising display. Perhaps I had the storyline wrong. It isn’t so much that this team of superstars is underperforming despite racking up the wins. Rather, they are continuing to secure victories even as they come into their own, surviving the growing pains without sacrificing any points along the way. Now if they could only find a legitimate left back, I could quit complaining entirely.