La Liga Review: Real Madrid Proves To Be A Legitimate Threat to Barcelona
The Almería – Barcelona match had not concluded when Real Madrid took to the pitch, but a few minutes into their match with Sevilla, they knew that Barça slipped at the Estadio de los Juegos Mediterráneos and dropped two points with a 2-2 draw against Almería. Expectations were that Real Madrid would not have the chance to grab at least a share of the lead away from the Blaugrana until the second Clásico meeting on April 11, but this unforeseen gift, wrapped in a bow by their archrivals to the northeast, laid at the doorstep of the Bernabéu for the Madridistas to open gleefully.
Unfortunately, Xabi Alonso put it into his own net in the 10th minute, and Ivica Dragutinovic scored an unlikely free kick that was meant to be crossed into a flood of players. Iker Casillas and Xabi Alonso looked at each other with contempt as both expected one another to handle the harmless ball. Xabi Alonso let the ball sail over his head, assuming that Casillas would catch it on the bounce. Casillas anticipated Xabi Alonso to head the ball away to safety and therefore did not cover the left post. The ball furtively sneaked into the bottom left corner of the net, and Sevilla held a 0-2 lead at the Santiago Bernabéu with 38+ minutes remaining.
A loss for Real Madrid against Sevilla, even in the capital city, would not have been a shocking revelation, and a defeat to the Andalusians would still have Los Blancos a mere three points behind Barcelona with thirteen matches left to overturn the deficit. Real Madrid manager Manuel Pellegrini entertained zero options of settling, as he removed Álvaro Arbeloa and Lassana Diarra from the action in the 55th minute and sent in two creative midfielders, Rafael van der Vaart and Guti, to revitalize the incessant but stagnant attack.
Observing that Sevilla had only one shot on target in fifty-five minutes, the unlikely Dragutinovic goal, Pellegrini concluded that there was little need for a second defensive midfielder and a stay-at-home left back. Real Madrid played intricate football in the middle of the pitch, used both flanks effectively, and dabbled in a more direct, long-ball approach up to that point, but Sevilla goalkeeper Andrés Palop and his defensive line held firm without a breach of goal. Los Nervionenses cared little that their two goals came courtesy of a Xabi Alonso own goal and miscommunication between Iker Casillas and Xabi Alonso on a Dragutinovic free kick.
Rafael van der Vaart and Guti certainly have the fecundity to create and exploit any gaps within the Sevilla defense, and each had differing problems with Pellegrini this season. Van der Vaart was supposed to be gone in the previous summer transfer window. He was not in Pellegrini’s blueprints to the point where Esteban Granero was given van der Vaart’s number 23 in the preseason. Wesley Sneijder, exiled by Real Madrid and eventually sold to Inter Milan, more than suggested to van der Vaart that he should leave to join a club that wanted him.
Van der Vaart stubbornly stayed with Madrid, feeling as though he was good enough for the team and wanted to prove his Madrid doubters wrong. While he has fought injuries throughout the season, van der Vaart showed himself to be the third attacking midfielder with Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká.
As for José María Gutiérrez Hernández, that man known as Guti, Guti is and will always be Guti. Perpetually and chronically incorrigible, he has gotten under the skin of every Real Madrid manager since he first made it to the senior squad. If anyone tugs on his gossamer robe, he lashes out and leaves no one in his wake.
For a character like that, he should have been booted out years ago, but he still roams the pitch at the Santiago Bernabéu because of his truly world-class vision and passing distribution. The term “world-class” is bandied around quite frequently, but for Guti, the label fits. If he did not possess this type of talent, there is no way manager after manager would have kept this turbulent truculent on their squads.
Manuel Pellegrini could have easily phased out both van der Vaart and Guti if he let his ego get the best of him, but when the bell rung, he employed the players best suited for the situation rather than use others just because they did not vex him. What Madrid needed in the final half-hour against Sevilla were players that forced Sevilla’s defensive and midfield lines to lose their shape.
Whereas the field tilted toward Andrés Palop’s goal in the first half, this Madrid torrent in the second half completely inundated everyone with a red tinge. A 60th minute Cristiano Ronaldo strike that benefited from a wicked Marius Stankevicius deflection and a 64th minute Sergio Ramos header from a van der Vaart corner turned the match completely around in the ten minutes since the substitutes entered the match. Guti struck the crossbar, and Gonzalo Higuaín hit the post and the crossbar on two separate shots in the ensuing ten minutes after the Ramos equalizer, but Pellegrini was not done with his tinkering.
In the 75th minute, he made the bold move of withdrawing the €65 million Kaká in favor of Real Madrid’s all-time leading scorer Raúl, who has made very few appearances since losing his starting spot early in the season. Kaká had a decent game, but van der Vaart and Guti accomplished more in twenty minutes than Kaká did in seventy-five. Pellegrini, soft-spoken but strong in his convictions, knew the gravity of the situation and wanted no less than three points.
An ultra-offensive 4-1-3-2 formation proved to be too much for Sevilla, as Rafael van der Vaart outmuscled Stankevicius for a rebound from three yards out and converted his scoring chance after Palop understandably gave up a rebound from Higuaín’s header in the second minute of stoppage time.
The euphoria felt and created by the players sent the Madridistas into a higher state of consciousness as they witnessed the most electric thirty minutes of the La Liga season. Pellegrini, always the levelheaded statesman, put this match into its proper perspective when he spoke with Spanish sports daily Marca:
“There are still 39 points to play for. These are three important points. We will only be happy when our final objectives are obtained. Now we depend on ourselves.”
With all the emotion spent on conquering this two-goal deficit against Sevilla, Real Madrid will have little time to recover because they host Lyon on Wednesday in the second leg of their UEFA Champions League tie down a single goal. Whether they maintain this surging momentum into that match remains to be seen, and for all the plaudits and accolades they received on Saturday, a deluge of harsh criticism will be levied upon them if they fail to defeat Lyon and advance to the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
That discussion, however, is for another day. Real Madrid and Barcelona are tied at the top of La Liga with thirteen matches remaining. Barcelona has the edge because they defeated Real 1-0 in November, and as the famous Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once quipped:
If you are first, you are first. If you are second, you are nothing.
Real Madrid would not want it any other way.
Fueras de Juego
- Athletic Bilbao’s resurgence this season is due to many factors, including a stellar home record and Fernando Llorente leading the line, but some credit has to go to Gaizka Toquero, the perfect wingman to Llorente’s hold-up play. Once a lower division vagabond with such illustrious clubs as SD Lemona, Sestao River Club, and SD Eibar, he caught the eye of Bilbao, although he was not in manager Joaquín Caparrós’ plans when Toquero first arrived in Bilbao. He scored both of Athletic’s goals in their routine 2-0 win over Real Valladolid on Sunday, including a clinical finish off the short-hop to give his team an insurmountable two-goal advantage.
- Felicitaciones to Xerez as they won their first match away from home in the top flight after defeating an in-form Málaga 2-4 in a match that featured two red cards, nine yellow cards and a penalty miss and a penalty make by Xerez winger Momo. Xerez manager Néstor Gorosito had an impossible task of keeping Xerez afloat after he replaced José Ángel Ziganda in January, and while Xerez is still ten points adrift of safety, Gorosito has instilled confidence in a team that had none before he arrived.
- The weekly drama that is Atlético Madrid came up with another plot twist, as Ibrahima Baldé scored in stoppage time to give Los Colchoneros an undeserved 1-1 draw. A poor match in terms of quality, Diego Forlán was livid when he was substituted with thirty minutes left, and Atleti seemed to release the guillotine on itself after José Antonio Reyes received a straight red card for flailing his arm at Eliseu Pereira, although what little contact Reyes made on Eliseu sent him into “unfathomable” pain. Clearly frustrated by Zaragoza’s bounty on him, he decided to take the law into his own hands in a half-hearted attempt to send a message. If Atlético manager Quique Sánchez Flores has not already been prescribed Thorazine, Zyprexa, or any other antipsychotic drug because he has to deal with this club on a daily basis, he needs them now.