Castilla making progress under the gaze of Madrid's notorious Ultras

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

Angel Martinez/Real Madrid/Getty ImagesJose Rodriguez is flirting with the Real Madrid first team.

Madridista eyes were on a sunny Estadio Benito Villamarin on Saturday as their free-scoring side moved joint-top of La Liga thanks to a thumping 5-0 victory over bottom side Real Betis, but those with a keen interest in the club's second team, Castilla, braved the rain to enjoy one of their biggest games in the Segunda Division against Sporting Gijon.

Castilla, who play their home matches at Madrid's Valdebebas training ground near the airport, have enjoyed more column inches in recent months -- partly because of Alberto Toril's sacking, partly because of the impressive turnaround in results under his successor, Manolo Diaz, and partly because the best of the squad have been on the fringes of the first team as a result.

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They have been in the spotlight even more in recent weeks because Madrid's notorious Ultras, the Ultras Sur, have been attending the matches since being banned from the Bernabeu.

It meant that Saturday's visit of Los Rojiblancos and their La Mareona (translated as "The Big Tide") support was a big deal, despite the heavy rain and chilly conditions in the northeast of Madrid. Castilla usually average around 2,000 for home matches but over 4,000, including a big following from Gijon, braved the conditions.

The visitors edged it 2-1 thanks to goals from Carlos Carmona and top scorer Stefan Scepovic, but Castilla, who remain bottom despite a run of six games without defeat on home soil before the match, made a good fist of things. Jose Rodriguez, who featured for Madrid's first-team in their recent midseason trip to Doha to face Paris Saint-Germain in a big-money friendly, had the hosts on level terms with a fine individual strike before Stefan snatched the points with just over 10 minutes to play. The result sent Gijon to the top and left Castilla rooted to the foot of the table, but such a gap was not evident.

Those who follow Madrid's first team would be wise to keep an eye on Castilla. Goalscorer Rodriguez, defender Jorge Casado and midfielder Jaime all featured alongside Ronaldo and co. in Qatar earlier this month. Diego Llorente, absent on Saturday, also got a run out and players such as winger Lucas trained with the first-team squad over the winter break. Diaz's side may be rock-bottom in Segunda, but Ancelotti is taking note of some of the more impressive performers in the squad.

Midfielder Rodriguez in particular shone in tricky conditions against high-flying Gijon. On a pitch drenched by the heavy rainfall that continued for most of the match, the former Hercules man and Spain under-20 international, the 19-year-old played beyond his years and has a "footballing brain" that makes him stand out from the rest. His goal was sublime, with quick feet helping him get beyond two Gijon man before he produced a clinical finish. A break into the first team may well be a way off, but he's at least showing promise that he may not be one of those former Madrid men that find success elsewhere.

It was only Castilla's second defeat in eight matches, and first at home, since the promotion if manager Diaz from Real Madrid C. The fact they remain bottom of the pile only highlights the mess they were in before his arrival. Defeat against the league leaders is nothing to be ashamed of and Castilla should take encouragement from their performance, despite failing to climb off the bottom.

The first-half was even and it was tough to tell who was up at the top of the league and who was down at the bottom. The opener came ten minutes before the break when Diaz's men failed to clear the danger from a corner and Carmona drilled through Madrid legs and found the back of the net.

Castilla didn't let Los Rojiblancos gain control of the second half and offered a warning sign when Omar Mascarell's free kick from deep caused havoc in the Sporting box, but the visitors cleared the danger. A moment of magic from Rodriguez hauled Castilla level and he came close to turning the game on its head minutes later with a long-range shot that Cuellar could only grasp at the second attempt.

Casada fired a powerful header wide for the hosts, but Sporting gradually assumed some kind of control and were rewarded when Stefan drilled in the winner to the delight of the hordes of travelling fans from Asturias. The visitors support filled the regular away end and had plenty of supporters in and amongst the home end, sensibly taking shelter under the only roofed stand while the rest held their umbrellas up for 90 minutes.

But while La Mareona offered a big vocal support for the visitors, so did the 400 or so Ultras Sur who've swapped their place at the Bernabeu for Valdebebas. Madrid president Florentino Perez took the decision to ban the Ultras from Madrid home games, instead replacing them with a younger singing support, aptly naming the new area in the stadium as Grada Joven (Young Stand).

The Ultras gathered outside the Bernabeu for the visit of Celta earlier this month, the first match they were banned from, and made their way into the north stand for the cup match against Osasuna to vent their frustration at the new occupants of "their seats," and Perez.

Valdebebas has been their new "home from home," however, bolstering the home crowd for Castilla's 2-2 draw against Murcia, and also chanting against Perez, who regularly attends Castilla matches. The president wasn't in attendance on Saturday, however, with a trip to Seville the priority, and the Ultras' chants were focused mainly in support of Castilla. Whether those who regularly attend the Alfredo Di Stefano welcome them is as yet unknown. Despite the large and noisy visiting support and the arrival of the Ultras, there was no trouble inside or outside the stadium.

Castilla face big matches at local rivals Alcorcon and against Hercules, both sides within catching distance if they are to avoid relegation this season, in the next fortnight, games which could well decide their fate. On current form they're capable of coming away with a positive points haul from both.

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