Real escapes Elche courtesy of Ronaldo, referee

Posted by Rob Train

Cristiano Ronaldo scored a brace to guide Real Madrid to victory.GettyImagesCristiano Ronaldo scored a brace to guide Real Madrid to victory.

Real Madrid's visit to the Martinez Valero stadium of freshly promoted Elche was never going to be an easy one; Fran Escriba played no cute mind games in the build-up to the match, announcing that his side would go for an early goal and then sit back and invite Madrid to try and break them down.

It didn't quite pan out as Escriba had planned, although the visiting side had Diego Lopez to thank for preventing the Elche coach's plan from being realized, the Real keeper making two fine saves in the opening 45 minutes. What actually unfolded was a chaotic finale that handed Real an extremely valuable, but quite undeserved, three points in a 2-1 win.

-Ancelotti believes jeers could motivate Benzema

When the modest side from the Valencia region was promoted last season, it marked the end of an exile of a quarter-century from the Spanish top flight. Matches against Levante and Valencia would have been high in the players' priority when scanning the fixture list, but eyes would have undoubtedly alighted on the home encounter with Real first.

Players such as 33-year-old Edu Albacar have never performed on the Primera stage and Aaron Niguez is living the dream while playing for his hometown club. Maximum effort was never going to be an issue against a side that might have other things on their mind ahead of a capital city derby Saturday.

For Carlo Ancelotti and his work in progress, the most important thing on Wednesday was the result, and that is just as well; the Italian said earlier in the week that he was unhappy with his side's lack of punch in the opening exchanges of games and Elche -- a rag-tag collection of Segunda veterans and loan signings playing under a debutant coach -- were for large periods far the better team.

Real's priority was to go into the weekend fixture against Atletico Madrid no fewer than two points behind its city rival and league leader Barcelona, and this was achieved through the predictable source of Cristiano Ronaldo. But it will not be the Portuguese goal machine claiming all the headlines on Thursday.

Match referee Carlos Muniz Fernandez enjoys a certain notoriety as the most persnickety official in the Spanish leagues, and if his car escaped attention from the home fans after the game (this happens a fair bit in Spain) then he will consider his evening's work a good one. He will certainly be welcome in the middle of the field at the Bernabeu any time: the LFP would do well not to send him back to Elche this season.

Where to begin with one of the worst refereeing performances I have ever witnessed? Perhaps at the end, like a Tarantino film, in view of the bloodbath of woeful decisions taken: even on the final whistle, which sounded after seven minutes of stoppage time when three had been flagged up, Fernandez continued to brandish cards, issuing one to Carlos Sanchez that may well result in a suspension.

Why? Because when Fernandez pointed to the spot in the 94th minute, he carded Sanchez for a foul on Pepe. Without making too fine a point of the matter, it was Richmond Boakye who actually tangled with the Portuguese, and it is fairly improbable to confuse the two. In any case, the foul was incurred by the Real defender, who hauled the Juventus loanee to the floor in a dying swan routine off the ball that could easily have been ignored entirely.

Ronaldo hammered the penalty home to seal the win, but the Portuguese would certainly have made many friends if he had blasted over the bar or tamely shot straight at Manu Yague in the Elche goal. But it is not Ronaldo's remit to right the wrongs handed out by match officials; he is paid to win games and that is precisely what he did, shooting low to Manu's right, and he rightfully exploded with glee at the get-out-of-jail card provided by Fernandez.

Real's first goal came from a free kick awarded for a non-foul on the number 7, and the visitors should have been down to 10 men when Sergio Ramos fouled Coro, having incurred a caution earlier to rectify a defensive error when Ruben Perez nicked the ball from the Real captain.

In any case, Ancelotti's celebration when the three points were secured was telling in itself: his demeanor at the end of the first half was of a man clearly concerned a side with a budget equal to Real's headphone allowance was bossing the game.

Real went into the match six points better off than at the same stage last season under Jose Mourinho, but very nearly dropped two in the Martinez Valero when Boakye finished off a flowing move to equalize on 93 minutes. Karim Benzema had one of those nights and Real could find little in the way of an answer to Elche's offside trap and midfield pressure, eventually targeting the right flank with the returning Fabio Coentrao leading the assault.

The Italian's substitutions were again less than positive; Asier Illaramendi replaced Isco and Dani Carvajal slotted into midfield for Luka Modric. Shutting up shop against a side of Elche's stature to protect a 1-0 lead is not the Real way and it very nearly bit Ancelotti on the backside against a team that was highly motivated, if limited.

If the upcoming derby was in the Calderon -- and if Real had dropped points in Valencia -- Madridismo would have every right to be very worried indeed. But as things stand, Real is within yet another derby victory of second and has the potential impact of Gareth Bale to call upon on Saturday -- even if the staunchest card-carrying Blanco would struggle to justify the team's league position on Thursday morning.


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