Zaragoza rains on Real's tired procession

Posted by Rob Train

One thing is always guaranteed in Spain in Easter week -- rain. The moment the brotherhoods limber up to begin their arduous march through city centers the country over, carrying sometimes colossal effigies on their shoulders, the heavens duly open. It was little surprise then that Real Madrid's match away at La Rosaleda was played out under a sheet of the wet stuff, providing spectators with a damp and uncomfortable evening. What unfolded on the pitch gave the home crowd plenty to sing about though as relegation-threatened Zaragoza earned a valuable point against a below-par Madrid with a battling 1-1 tie, but Jose Mourinho and Florentino Perez failed to crack a single smile all night.

- Ronaldo scores in Madrid's draw

Little wonder: Real was dancing to its own peculiar tune, and it is one that is being played far too often for the tastes of manager and club president. With the Champions League trip to play Galatasary in mind, Mourinho made several changes to his team, bringing in Jose Callejon, Kaka, Luka Modric and Michael Essien to preserve his regular starters for the more important fixture. After all, despite Barcelona's stumble against Celta Vigo, also fighting for its very survival, it will require divine intervention to stop the Catalan club from claiming the title this season. Nights like this in Zaragoza are merely a sideshow now even if nobody admits it openly.

The Champions League is all that matters -- and beating Atletico in the cup final. Ensuring the cross city rival does not finish above Real is the minimum requirement for the remainder of the league season. Atletico has to play Valencia, Sevilla, Barça and Real over the next month or so -- in all likelihood Real won't have to do much to secure the runner-up medal except continue its 14-year derby jinx over the rojiblancos.

That is just as well, if Real continues to play like this. The first half was as disjointed as any this season with the second-string failing to string together more than three passes. Cristiano Ronaldo was completely isolated and Gonzalo Higuain, in continuance of another worrying recent trait displayed across the side, was almost constantly offside.

Only a flash of individual brilliance from Ronaldo -- and a stroke of luck with the bounce in the build-up -- rescued a point for his side, a left-footed snap shot from inside the area fooling Roberto, who was expecting a pull-back, in the Zaragoza goal. In all, there was as much speed and urgency about Real as one of the famous Easter weekend processions. But that is what the league season has become for Real Madrid -- a somber procession until the end. It's a similar story to the Premier League, where more modest sides are taking advantage of a lack of motivation at Chelsea and Manchester City to pick up points that would be unthinkable if either side actually had anything to bother playing for.

When a side with the limited goal threat of Zaragoza -- only Osasuna has scored fewer this season -- manages the same number of shots on target as Real did something is clearly not right. When Zaragoza identified Alvaro Arbeloa as Madrid's main attacking threat in the first half and doubled up on the right flank, it was a damning indictment of the failure of Real's midfield to make any headway against an organized defense. For all the multi-million euro attacking options on the field, loanee Essien stood out as a star performer on the night. Kaka and Modric failed to grasp the opportunity of rare starts and Callejon was equally ineffective if a little more eager than some of his more vaunted teammates. It was Zaragoza's targeting of the Croatian playmaker that led to the opening goal. Pressured in midfield, Modric ceded the ball to Movilla, who played in Rodri to slot home past Diego Lopez.

Modric at least tried to make amends in tracking back throughout the game but his lack of telling balls in the opposing half was half of Real's problem. Normally, after a lackluster first period, Real will come out with its tail up in the early exchanges of the second. In La Rosaleda even this norm was abandoned, other than a Marcelo shot that beat Roberto but not the post.

Mourinho's own body language mirrored his side's performance. The Real coach remained slouched in the dugout throughout the game while his opposite number Manolo Jimenez cajoled and encouraged from the technical area.

After a spell of long balls and Kaka dropping deep to try and carve out some space, a triple substitution, soccer's answer to a Hail Mary, saw Mesut Ozil, Angel di Maria and Sami Khedira thrown into the fray, but even that injection of pace and guile failed to turn the match in Real's favor. Mourinho might have profited more from hauling off Higuain, whose miserable night was compounded when he was caught several meters offside while seeking a ball from Ronaldo late on. When the team travels to Istanbul Mourinho has a none-too-appealing choice to make between the off-key Argentinean and the seriously confidence-hit Karim Benzema.

At least, in cut-price keeper Diego Lopez, Real has one genuine replacement for a first-choice player. Another solid display might well have helped Mourinho decide on who will face the shots in Turkey. Iker Casillas could find Real's run-in considerably longer than his teammates.

Only Ronaldo, always Ronaldo, showed any desire to win the game and in the absence of any direction from the dugout the Portuguese barked orders, gestured and tried to inspire his side. He might have won it for Real in the dying seconds but scuffed a shot from a similar position from where he'd scored earlier.

The team that is selected to play Galatasary will bear no resemblance to Saturday night's, either in personnel or in enthusiasm. The European Cup has long been the Holy Grail at the Bernabeu, and more so this season with the league long-since surrendered.

If Perez's face in the presidential box was anything to go by, someone will need to bring him the real thing if anything goes wrong in Istanbul.

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