Valencia win leaves Madrid in good spirits

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

Jese is mobbed after scoring the goal which earned Real Madrid a vital 3-2 win at Valencia.GettyImagesJese is mobbed after scoring the goal that earned Real Madrid a vital 3-2 win at Valencia.

This season's winter break will be a more enjoyable one for Real Madrid after Los Blancos finished 2013 as they started it -- with a victory over Valencia at the Mestalla.

When Jose Mourinho's men trounced Los Che 5-0 to kick-start 2013, Real Madrid trailed eventual champions Barcelona by a whopping 16 points. The damage in the La Liga title race last season had already been done. Fast-forward almost 12 months, and Carlo Ancelotti's Whites trail the champions by just five points. A battling 3-2 victory Sunday over a Valencia side in crisis on and off the pitch will leave those at the Bernabeu in good spirits heading into the new year -- it's game on in La Liga, unlike the same stage last season.

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Madrid were good value for their win against a Valencia side that had parted company with manager Miroslav Dukic during the week and is facing problems surrounding a Bankia bailout off the pitch. Los Che battled hard and defended resolutely, but a free-scoring Madrid side prevailed, even if they did have to wait until the match was nearly over to grab the winner.

Angel Di Maria fired the visitors ahead with a fine individual strike, then set up Cristiano Ronaldo for Madrid's second as Ancelotti's men led 2-1 at half-time, with Pablo Piatti getting the hosts on level terms in between. Jeremy Mathieu then levelled the score at 2 for Valencia, who were being bossed by youth team coach Nico Estevez, as Madrid looked to be heading for more away-day problems following a draw at lowly Osasuna last time out. But substitute Jese grabbed a dramatic winner eight minutes from full-time to give Madrid a big three points to keep hot on the heels of Barca and Atletico Madrid going into 2014.

Los Blancos were not vintage, far from it, but they were up against a Valencia side defending for their lives, desperate to keep their minds on on-the-field matters and search for a response following the departure of their manager during the week. Victory was crucial for Real Madrid following the disappointment in Pamplona a week earlier, and victory
was delivered -- just.

Gareth Bale was unavailable due to injury, and that gave Di Maria, hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent weeks, the chance to shine. Much has been made of the Argentine's attitude after dropping down the pecking order since the Welshman's arrival, but Di Maria, still linked with a January move away from the Spanish capital, showed he still has plenty to offer for Madrid.

His first goal was a sublime individual strike, cutting in between Piatti and Juan Bernat from the right before unleashing an unstoppable low shot across the face of goal and beyond Valencia goalkeeper Vicente Guaita to give Madrid the lead. He was involved in the second goal, too, providing a dangerous in-swinging free-kick for Ronaldo to head home. Everyone knows the qualities Di Maria possesses on his day, and he was keen to showcase them in the final game of the year. Whether it will be his final game in a Madrid shirt is another matter, as the opening of the transfer window edges nearer, but Di Maria is a vital cog in the Blancos squad.

"Generally speaking, the young ones need time and work. Playing for Real Madrid isn't easy." That was Ancelotti's assessment of Madrid's young guns after their less-than-impressive displays in two legs against lower-division Xativa in the Copa del Rey. The message worked. Jese featured in both games without pulling any trees up but came on to bag the winner at the Mestalla. The goal could prove crucial in the title race. Playing for Real Madrid isn't easy, but goals like that make it easier.

There are still concerns for Madrid heading into 2014, and Ancelotti will look to use the winter break to assess them. Madrid have been far from convincing at the back so far, and that was highlighted with another two goals conceded -- both coming from crosses into the box.

Conceding goals from set-pieces has been a problem area for Madrid for some time, and that still needs to be ironed out. Pepe may have been missing at the back, but Sergio Ramos, who was able to play after having one of his yellow cards against Osasuna rescinded, was caught out with his marking for both goals.

Los Blancos will also wait tentatively on Xabi Alonso's future. The former Liverpool man has forged an encouraging partnership with Luka Modric in the middle of the park, and although he will definitely be at the club until the end of the season at least, Los Blancos could do without the distraction of rumours linking him elsewhere in January, or without dealing with Alonso's potential move to a new club come the end of the season. An unwanted distraction, indeed.

While two points dropped at Osasuna was a disappointment, victory at the Mestalla, albeit against a poor Valencia side, will be just the boost Ancelotti and his men need going into the winter break. A five-point deficit is obviously better than 16, as was the case 12 months ago. Wins for the Catalans and Atleti in the final Jordana of the year leaves La Liga nicely poised heading into 2014.

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