Jornada 15 brought another routine high-scoring home win for Real Madrid, but the weekend proved better than usual for Carlo Ancelotti and his men, with title rival Barcelona suffering defeat in La Liga for the first time this season.
Los Blancos cruised to a 4-0 victory over a struggling Real Valladolid side at the Bernabeu, led by a Gareth Bale hat trick, but a 1-0 defeat suffered by Barcelona at Athletic Bilbao provided the talking point of the weekend in Spain.
- Train: Bernabeu gives Bale the OK
- Sergio Busquets: Loss down to referee
A six-point gap between the Catalans and Madrid was cut to three going into the break for the Copa del Rey matches and Madrid have found themselves firmly back in the title race, as if they weren't before. Let's not forget Atletico Madrid, either, with Diego Simeone's men joint-top thanks to their win at Elche. It could be the closest title race for some years.
Barca's 2-1 Clasico victory at the Camp Nou saw many predict that the title race was already over with Gerardo Martino's men making a sizzling start to the season and Madrid struggling to string any kind of consistency together under the new shape and style of Ancelotti.
Now the momentum has swung from Catalonia to the Spanish capital, with both Atleti and Real chopping at the heels of a Lionel Messi-less Barcelona as the season edges closer to the winter break.
The absence of Messi has been a talking point. Officially the best player in the world (until January, at least), Messi has been stuck on the sideline with injury, and it seemingly has had an impact on his team. Barca have lost back-to-back matches following the loss to Ajax in the Champions League. Talk of crisis is premature, but back-to-back defeats is not the norm at the Camp Nou.
The difference between Barca and Madrid is that Real have flourished without their star man in Ronaldo, whereas Barca have struggled. A trip to Ajax and Bilbao, who are building somewhat of another fortress at the New San Mames, are tougher matches than Galatasaray and Valladolid at home, granted. But Madrid have shown a frightening strength-in-depth without Ronaldo, and Bale has risen to the occasion. But Neymar, Messi's understudy, spent much of Sunday's match in the Basque country slipping around and changing his boots.
"I do not have an ideal 11 because I have a lot more than 11 players," said Ancelotti post-Valladolid. A welcome selection headache. Angel di Maria continued as the more-than-capable replacement for Ronaldo while Luka Modric returned from his Champions League suspension alongside Xabi Alonso.
With Isco joining in the fun, Madrid's middle three broke their season's passing record with a total of 745. Madrid passed Valladolid to death and took on a more passing-led approach, with some typical counterattacking thrown in there, too. It may have only been against a visiting side that are alarmingly out of form, but Ancelotti's way of playing rose to the top.
Without their Portuguese talisman, Madrid may have a tendency to keep the ball for longer and slowly build up their attacks. Bale may be similar to Ronaldo in his bursting powerful runs forward, but with the former in the side as the focal point, Madrid look to get the ball forward quicker and Ronaldo likes to play much more directly. It gives Ancelotti and Madrid options, and good options at that. Barca, in contrast, are seemingly struggling to adapt without their Argentine beacon.
Now the key is for Los Blancos to keep their form up and keep the pressure on Barca ahead of the winter break. Only two La Liga matches may remain before then, with two Copa matches and one Champions League match, a dead rubber in Copenhagen, also thrown in, alongside trips to Osasuna and Valencia. Barca's last two matches before Christmas are more testing, with Villarreal visiting the Camp Nou and Getafe, a side well capable of causing an upset, especially on home soil, hosting Martino's men. Game on.