Real tripped up yet again in Navarre

Posted by Rob Train

The home of Osasuna has not been very accommodating to Real Madrid in recent years. Before Saturday's early kickoff, the visiting side had won once in their previous five Liga away days at the Reyno de Navarre, or El Sadar Stadium. But on current form -- Osasuna have won as many away this season as at home, their usual fail-safe against relegation, while Real have been scoring freely -- Carlo Ancelotti might have expected he would be the manager to lift one of Real's minor domestic hoodoos.

But the home side, roared on by a famously partisan crowd that delights in giving Cristiano Ronaldo both barrels of its well-stocked vitriol, had other ideas. Having held Barcelona to a goalless draw in October, Javi Gracia's side fully merited another valuable point in a pulsating match that ended 2-2. Oriol Riera scored two well-taken goals to hand his side the initiative, but Real, to their credit, fought back to level the match and salvage a point from a game that was never under the visitor's control.

As was the case in Real's last Liga road trip in Almeria, an opening barrage led by Ronaldo was launched in search of an early goal, but the home side held firm and the Portuguese uncharacteristically offered a stay of execution, blasting high and wide several times and missing the sort of chance on 10 minutes that 99 times out of 100 would have hit the back of the net.

Ancelotti often talks about balance when describing how he wants to Real to play. There was precious little of that on display in a foul-tempered opening half hour during which Osasuna took the game, rather physically, to the visitor, which responded in kind via Marcelo and Pepe. Clearly, Gracia's game plan was to hit on the breakthrough cantera product Roberto Torres and returning winger Marc Bertran. The former found himself through one-on-one with Diego Lopez yet fired high with the net gaping, but the move was judged offside in any case. However, it was a warning shot that Real failed to fully heed.

Riera opened the scoring with a powerful header at the back post. No Real defender picked up his run, and Pepe, rooted to the spot, simply followed the angle of the delivery as it landed invitingly on the striker's head. The former Alcorcon player's second was scored from the same spot, Lopez having reacted quickly to a goal-bound Damia Perez header only to see the ball loop up into Riera's path. There was little Lopez could do about it, but his defence was again reduced to shambles.

Real could feel rightly aggrieved at the size of the task now facing them; Luka Modric had been clipped in the opposite area between Osasuna's strikes, in what certainly appeared to be a penalty. To add insult to injury, Sergio Ramos was subsequently given his marching orders to the delight of the home support for a second yellow after incurring a caution for dissent earlier in the half when penalized for a foul despite making zero contact with Alvaro Cejudo. The former Sevilla man could not complain about the second, though, as he swung out an arm to halt Torres' progress.

Playing against 10 men, had Osasuna made it to halftime with their two-goal cushion intact, the result would likely have been very different, but Isco's fine effort served to sow the first seeds of doubt in the home side's aspirations for a famous victory.

What is surprising is that Real didn't capitalise on their foothold during the break. The same 10 players trotted out for the second period, with Xabi Alonso slotting into central defence and Modric tasked with breaking up Osasuna's counters while instigating Real's on his own. It quickly became apparent that: 1) it was asking a little too much of the Croatian, and 2) Alonso is a very decent centre half. The Basque rectified a positional error to cut out Cejudo's diagonal pass, which had it reached its destination would have afforded Oriol a glorious opportunity to make it 3-1. He then repeated the trick 10 minutes later to cut out a Bertran ball with three Osasuna players bearing down on goal.

In the interim, Ancelotti had replaced an ineffectual Gareth Bale with Angel di Maria, largely because the Argentine offers so much more defensively than the number 11 and Osasuna were very much in the ascendancy. Real's habitual pressing tactic had completely broken down, and possession was being surrendered too often. Osasuna looked increasingly threatening as the holes in Real's makeshift back line began to widen.

Nacho then came on for Modric to allow Alonso to return to his post, and at times Real played with three at the back, Marcelo pushing up to complement the work of Di Maria, who was busy narrowing Osasuna's back line by moving into the central channels. This gave Real a little more security against the quick strikes of the home side, but it was Torres who almost restored the two-goal cushion 20 minutes from time; Lopez, though, was equal to the youngster's double effort.

The question has to be asked: Why did Ancelotti not make the second change at halftime? The Italian's substitutions are often defensive in nature. Leaving his back line so exposed was somewhat out of the box.

Francisco "The Cat" Silva did Real the favour they arguably deserved by scything through Ronaldo for a second booking and presenting the visitor with a free kick in a dangerous area with 10 minutes left on the clock. Surely enough, Isco produced a wonderful delivery that Pepe thumped home to equalize.

Ten against 10, neither side was able to break the deadlock and shared a point that will be much more welcome in Navarre than in Madrid. Real's scant consolation lies in the opposition their top-three rivals face this weekend: Barcelona hosts Villarreal on Saturday night while Atletico face a vastly improved Valencia on Sunday.

Real travel to Mestalla next weekend in what will be a difficult encounter. For now, Ancelotti and his players will be happy enough that their annual Pamplona purgatory is over for another season.


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