In terms of the football played on the pitch, the Sevilla – Real Madrid clash qualified as the best match of the young La Liga season. Honorable mentions to Athletic Bilbao’s 3-2 victory over Villarreal CF in Round 3 and the pulsating 2-2 draw between Valencia and Atlético Madrid last Saturday night, but this fixture contained everything that a writer and a supporter wanted: back stories prior to the game, vigorous and attacking football, tensions boiling over the players at hand, and incredible stops by both goalkeepers. All of these elements amalgamated into an ebullient effervescence of magical football.
The story that dominated this game prior to kick-off was the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo due to an ankle injury sustained in Real’s 3-0 victory over Olympique de Marseille in the Champions League on Wednesday. In Real’s Round 2 match-up with Espanyol, Ronaldo started on the bench and only held a 0-1 lead at Estadi Cornellà-El Prat when he came into the game in the 66th minute and immediately changed the game. Now that Madrid could not rely on Ronaldo versus a quality side like Sevilla, would Madrid respond positively to their first significant injury crisis of the season?
The first half hour of the match saw Sevilla control the tempo and possession, as they kept Real Madrid on their heels. Real changed their system slightly with a 4-2-2-2 with Karim Benzema and Raúl up front with Guti and Kaká just behind and Xabi Alonso and Mahmadou Diarra protecting the defensive four, but this change did nothing to prevent Sevilla’s waves of attacks. Man of the match Jesús Navas ran rampant down the right flank as Marcelo continually abandoned his defensive responsibilities at left back; even when Marcelo stayed disciplined, Navas went through and around him with relative ease. One of Marcelo’s forays into the offensive third, however, did result in one of Madrid’s best scoring chances in the half when his shot from just outside the penalty box went a couple of feet wide of Andrés Palop’s near post. The only negatives for Sevilla were that they did not capitalize on their numerous chances and Sébastien Squillaci had to be taken out of the game due to injury. Fernando Navarro came in for Squillaci, reshaped the defense with Abdoulay Konko moving into the center of defense from right back, Adriano switched flanks and went to right back, and Navarro filled in at left back.
Sevilla broke the deadlock in the 33rd minute, when Jesús Navas headed home the opening goal. The opportunity started with Diego Perotti cutting into the penalty area from the left flank. Taking defenders with him, he flicked a back heel into open space down the left wing, where Fernando Navarro ran onto the pass and perfected a pinpoint cross to Navas in the box. Not known for his heading ability, Navas would not win many standing aerial battles, but the teasing cross by Navarro gave Navas the ability to get a running start and beat a ball-watching Marcelo to give Sevilla the 1-0 lead.
The underlying tension and visible frustrations of Real Madrid came to a head in the 35th minute. After a foul on Guti, Didier Zokora shouted some nasty words into Guti’s ear, presumably for Guti going down easily. Guti retaliated by getting into Zokora’s face, and in response, Zokora put his hands onto Guti’s mouth and shoved him away. Guti and Zokora nearly came to blows, while Diego Perotti involved himself in the mêlée by shoving Guti in the back to stand up for his teammate. By this time, most of the players tried to sort out exactly what happened and kept each other from worsening the situation. Zokora, Perotti, and Guti all got yellow cards, but symbolically, Sevilla showed they were not afraid of Real and further buoyed them to attack the Real goal.
Until the third minute of the second half, Sevilla continued to boss the game, but a Pepe equalizing header from a Guti free kick tied the score at 1-1. In less than thirty seconds, Sevilla went from a potential 2-0 lead and certain victory to a 1-1 dogfight. In the events immediately preceding the Pepe header, Álvaro Negredo showed his speed for a big man and ran down the right wing near the by-line. He squared the cross across the six-yard box and Perotti had the simple finish, but somehow, Iker Casillas got across the goal line and stopped a certain goal at the far post. Casillas was in position at the right goal post to stifle any attempt by Negredo to shoot at the near post, but when Negredo passed the ball across the six-yard box, there was a 99.9% chance that a goalkeeper could not recover and get to the other post in that short of a span. Casillas got there and stunned Perotti, the team, and the fans; that is why Iker Casillas is in that 0.1% of goalkeepers.
That goal temporarily took the wind out of Sevilla’s sails, and Real Madrid began to take the game to Sevilla for the first time in the match. Gonzalo Higuaín replaced an ineffective and virtually non-existent Karim Benzema in the 53rd minute and contributed almost immediately with some trenchant runs and a couple of shots at goal. Sevilla halted the momentum train in the 66th minute when Renato scored to regain the lead at 2-1. From a short corner, Adriano’s cross picked out an unmarked Renato who headed it towards the left far post for the goal; even the sublime Iker Casillas had no shot this time.
For the rest of the match, they went tit for tat, climaxing on the last movement of play in the fourth minute of stoppage time. After Casillas saved another shot by Luís Fabiano, he quickly punted the ball, and the ball cushioned on the chest of Higuaín. He settled it, made a mad dash toward goal, and laid the ball off for Kaká. Kaká then gave Sergio Ramos a lovely through ball at the right side of the penalty area. Ramos controlled the pass with one touch and then gave a last second, desperate lash at the ball, but it sailed wide of Palop’s near post. End-to-end action from kick-off to the final whistle, literally. A conclusion any less compelling would have taken away from a truly scintillating affair.
There are still thirty-two matches left in the season, and this result could have less importance by the end of the campaign, but that is for the future to tell. Many will say that Cristiano Ronaldo could have legitimately made the difference in the result for Real Madrid. That very well may be true, but placing that aside for a moment, for this night, in this context, the match of the season shook the players and the observers to their respective cores and witnessed gripping football at its very essence.
Sevilla’s 2-1 victory over Real Madrid on Sunday night signaled a change in many people’s minds about La Liga only being a two-horse race this season. With Real Madrid and FC Barcelona maintaining 100% records through the first five rounds, this talk looked justified, but lurking behind with only one loss was Sevilla. Disrespected would not be the appropriate description that defined Sevilla’s chances to claim the domestic title, but they were certainly overlooked. Until they engineered a convincing victory over Barça or Real, they would continue to be the outsiders looking into the palace. They are outsiders no more.