Gameweek 9 gives Madrid welcome shot in the arm

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

Saturday afternoon's 2-0 win over Malaga may have seemed like a routine home success for Real Madrid on paper, but Jornada 9 may well be looked back on as a key weekend in La Liga come the end of the season.

For all of the questions and doubts over Carlo Ancelotti's Madrid at the start of this season, Los Blancos find themselves just three points behind leaders Barcelona going into the first Clasico of the season Saturday at the Camp Nou.

Three points for Madrid, Barca drop their first points of the season with a 0-0 draw at Osasuna and Atletico Madrid go down 1-0 at Espanyol -- all on the same day.

- Corrigan: Three things learned in Madrid win
- Train: Poor finishing taints victory

There probably -- or almost certainly -- will be more crucial, championship-defining weekends between now and the end of the season. We're only a quarter of the way through the campaign, after all. But for the time, the Jornada 9 results tightened La Liga at the top.

Madrid's derby defeat seems long ago, while Atletico and Barca showed they are mortal. Bubbles may not have been burst and trends may not have been set, but it was a big, and positive, weekend for Ancelotti and his men.

First, Madrid played well and should have seen off Malaga by more than just the two goals. In previous matches, Madrid needed a real show of spirit to come from behind and beat Levante, suffered a rare derby defeat to Atletico in La Liga and needed a controversial 2-1 win at Primera Division side Elche. All not so inspiring. But the international break seemed to act to rejuvenate Los Blancos. A five-star performance it may not have been, but it was arguably Madrid's most complete performance under the Italian.

Madrid bossed possession (as Ancelotti has been keen for his side to do since his arrival), pressured high up to win the ball back early, kept a clean sheet -- Diego Lopez's first at the Bernabeu in La Liga this season -- and carved out plenty of chances. They looked like a team, not a set of individuals as they had last time in the Spanish capital against Diego Simeone's men from Atletico.

A more emphatic score line was missing, and Madrid only sealed its win late with a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty, but that was largely down to the heroics of Malaga goalkeeper Willy Caballero.

To the delight of the home fans, Alvaro Morata was handed a first start of the season due to Karim Benzema's calf injury, and he made the most of his chance without getting his name on the score sheet. An energetic display that on another day could have borne more fruit, with a goal disallowed and an assist for Ronaldo also being chalked off by the linesman's flag. Caballero denied him, too, as he had with his team-mates, and Morata left to large applause from the Bernabeu.

Gareth Bale returned to action, too, with a 15-minute substitute appearance that seemingly acted to nullify reports in the Spanish press that his injury was worse than what the club had claimed. The Welshman, although clearly still working his way back to full match fitness, slotted in well and won the penalty late on for Ronaldo to secure the three points.

Although Madrid's midfield was far from its fluent best -- that may well be reserved for the long-awaited return of Xabi Alonso from injury -- Asier Illarramendi slotted nicely in and had arguably his best game since making the summer switch from Real Sociedad. He kept it simple, as Madrid did effectively as a team largely throughout the 90 minutes, but it was just what Ancelotti ordered -- a stern protection of the Madrid defence and the orchestrating of Madrid's next attack. The Basque looked good and continues to grow in the all white.

But it wasn't just in the Spanish capital where Madrid could take encouragement from Jornada 9. In recent seasons, La Liga has been seen as a two-horse race, despite Atletico's efforts to break into the top two last season. But this time Simeone's Atletico were enjoying a 100 percent start to this season alongside champions Barca at the top.

Titles are not won this early, but they can be lost this early, and Madrid was in danger of being left with a real mountain to climb had the trend from the first eight match days continued for much longer.

Saturday's Clasico was shaping up to be all in favour for a Barceloa side that had not dropped a point before this weekend. Madrid were still in development -- they still are -- and the Catalans were firing on all cylinders. They have home advantage, too. As naive as it may seem, had Madrid still trailed Barca by six points going into the game and had they lost at the Camp Nou, some Madridistas would have been throwing the towel in on the title already. Now, Madrid can move level on points with their old foes if they manage to leave with a win.

Barca showed jitters in Pamplona. A rare failure to get on the score sheet and points dropped ahead of their biggest domestic fixture of the season. Will it act to give them a kick up the backside just before the big one? Or will it only act to install more nerves ahead of the Clasico and buoy a Madrid side that has been in for its fair share of stick already this season? The chance to move joint-top after a stuttering and somewhat experimental start to the season.

It's a big week for Madrid -- it was always going to be. Job done against a tricky Malaga side on home soil, and next up is Wednesday's Champions League contest against visiting Juventus, which flopped to a 4-2 defeat at Fiorentina in the league Sunday but nevertheless has been placed among the favourites for European glory this season, and with good reason.

If Madrid come through that, and Saturday's Clasico, with a positive outcome, then Madridistas can get excited. Jornada 9, in some way, shape or form, may just have helped kick-start it.


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