Real Madrid close the gap against Espanyol

Posted by Rob Train

Ask a footballer today what he was doing when a title rival was playing and the answer will invariably involve a games console. But few of Real Madrid’s players, whatever their Saturday night entertainment, would have been able to resist at least a quick glance at the result of the Atletico de Madrid-Barcelona match. The 0-0 stalemate, which left Carlo Ancelotti’s side six points behind the joint leaders, certainly did Real more favors than either of the protagonists at the Calderon.

Had Barcelona beaten Atletico, an eight-point gap would have unfolded. Despite Atletico’s genuine threat to the status quo in La Liga -- and recent ascendency in the cross-city bragging stakes -- Real will always feel more comfortable chasing the emerging enemy than the eternal one; a hard-fought if hardly inspiring 1-0 victory at Espanyol on Sunday dragged the Bernabeu club back into the domestic reckoning for now.

• Report: Espanyol 0-1 Real Madrid
• La Liga wrap: Real Madrid close in

Carlo Ancelotti chose to field Angel di Maria ahead of Isco on the left side of a 4-3-3 midfield, the Argentinean having been spared the Bernabeu’s examination of his own lower-half “readjustment” in the midweek King’s Cup clash against Osasuna.

But if Di Maria’s hand was as much on his heart, he would concur Real’s enduring problem lay farther back and an under-strength Espanyol, with coach Javier Aguirre confined to the stands, sought to take the high road to victory in the Cornella-El Prat.

It doesn’t take a tactical genius -- although the Mexican schemer is one of La Liga’s most experienced -- to note that Real simply cannot defend high balls. Stuani was on the end of a couple of moves as Espanyol sought route one on the foundation of an unadventurous 4-1-4-1 formation.

Still, shorn of suspended forward Sergio García, veteran midfielder David Lopez and want-away striker Thievy Bifouma, Espanyol missed the instinct of a finisher in front of goal. Gabriel Torje moved into the danger areas in support on the break but that was hardly likely to ever worry Real’s back line.

The surprise factor came in the form of 20-year-old colossus Jhon Cordoba, who led the line and made a wonderful run that had Real’s defense in pieces midway through the first half. The striker’s physicality was too much for the visiting back line on several occasions but a final flourish failed to materialize.

The visitors, meanwhile, were missing Isco’s deft touch in the final third, and displaying too much verticalidad, as the Spanish call it -- reliance on speed rather than guile. Exactly the opposite of what Ancelotti is attempting to instill at the Bernabeu.

But a side on the back of two defeats in cup and league -- one to Real’s old friends Alcorcon -- are not going to risk too much at home. Aguirre had a video camera to hand, but any advantage wrought by technology cannot counter good old lady luck and Cristiano Ronaldo certainly helped the home side with a rare display of profligacy.

Few of the Portuguese’s efforts genuinely troubled Espanyol keeper Kiko Casilla, a disciple of his near namesake Iker while at Castilla, but the Spain captain would have applauded a save dug out from under his feet from the most threatening action of the first half, a dipping, fizzing free kick.

Neither was Real’s front line on the same page when a lightning counter at the feet of Luka Modric found its way to Karim Benzema and Ronaldo entering the box, the chance going begging. The move signaled Real’s first resort to their usual method of resolving games against well-organized sides, and Espanyol was not in the mood for giving anything away on the cheap.

A crisp, clean first half warranted no movement on the Real bench, but the quick feet of Isco were sorely missed in a lackluster first period.

Arguably Real’s man of the match, Modric, provided the breakthrough 10 minutes into second half. A free kick from the right channel found Pepe unmarked in a momentary lapse of Espanyol’s disciplined setup.

That the result didn’t change from there is as much kudos to Aguirre and Espanyol as a consequence of Ronaldo’s mercy. On several occasions the Real No. 7 had the opening but failed to add to his phenomenal record for the season. Casilla had his say in the contest, preventing an embellished score line on several occasions, not least when Ronaldo turned the screw in the final 10 minutes.

Ronaldo may well win the Ballon d’Or on Monday for his exploits in 2013, but Real’s continued pursuit of the 2014 Liga title was a team effort, led from the front and back by Modric, this season as much a player in the grand scheme of things as the Portuguese or anybody else on the books.

It wasn’t pretty, or convincing, but it was enough to haul Real back into the title race, and that is enough for now.

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