Missed chances leave Real cup-tied

Posted by Rob Train

Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty ImagesKarim Benzema's first half header gave Real Madrid a 1-0 lead on aggregate in their Copa del Rey quarterfinal versus Espanyol.

Few people at Real Madrid would admit to viewing the King's Cup as a priority; it is more of a sideshow when the club is fighting on three fronts, a battle that has become a little more tangible in the past two weeks after the league leaders were reined in. Carlo Ancelotti is fully aware that while his job is hardly on the line if greater glories are not achieved this season, a domestic cup triumph will prove a shiny distraction to draw the gaze of fans and board alike.

The Italian fielded a strong side in Barcelona for other, more pragmatic reasons than to finish the tie in one leg during a glut of games that will stretch his squad ahead of more weighty engagements. A 1-0 victory in the Cornella stadium was as much one for Espanyol as for Real, even if the competition format means there are rarely any major surprises over 180 minutes at this stage.

- Report: Espanyol 0-1 Real Madrid

Only Xabi Alonso, of what is rapidly becoming Ancelotti's starting XI, was on the bench, with a nod to rotation at right back. Angel di Maria started on the left of midfield in another indication of Isco's current standing at the club. It has been a while now since the young midfielder was carving defences apart and being hailed as the new Zidane. Now reduced to examining his boots in the dugout while the Argentinean is played out of position, Isco did at least get a run-out on Tuesday, albeit a brief one.

In any case, Real's domination of the match in Catalonia did not translate into a confidence vote for the independent spirit granted to the players by Ancelotti. The tie should have been put to bed, but questionable decision-making and Espanyol's grit ensured a full-blooded return match at the Bernabeu next week. Karim Benzema opened the scoring, reacting fastest to latch on to a headed flick from Gareth Bale, but Real might have had a couple before that had Cristiano Ronaldo squared for the unattended Di Maria or gone for the easier option instead of attempting a Hollywood overhead.

In fairness to the No. 7, if anything is going to go to the head of a man with as many awards on his groaning mantelpiece as Ronaldo, it would be a knighthood presented by the hand of Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva earlier in the day that made Ronaldo an official of the Order of Prince Henry. But back at the day job, he missed a fair few chances, as he had in Real's 1-0 win against the same opponent 10 days ago in the league, although an early turn and crack ricocheted off the post.

Sir Cristiano, though, was not alone in seeking to embellish his own statistics for the season. Alvaro Arbeloa found himself on the end of two gilt-edged chances and spurned them both, while Benzema, through on goal and with Ronaldo waiting in the wings for a simple tap-in, fired straight at Espanyol goalkeeper Kiko Casilla. Bale came closest to extending Real's lead with a dipping, fizzing free kick from distance that Casilla did well to tip over. But Real's superiority failed to tell overall.

Had Pizzi made better use of an inviting cutback from Espanyol captain and talisman Sergio Garcia before Benzema's strike, the game might have taken on a different complexion entirely. Espanyol coach Javier Aguirre has never been a poster boy for expansive football: Route one is good enough if it gets the ball there and his side have not veered greatly from that ethos all season. But the Mexican schemer did spot a flaw in Real's midfield and introduced Alex after the break to take advantage of it. Di Maria's fighting qualities are beyond doubt, but his positional sense is not and with Asier Illarramendi often on the back foot -- an over-hit back pass under pressure almost embarrassed Iker Casillas -- Espanyol swamped the midfield and enjoyed the better of the opening exchanges of the second period.

Garcia twice went close and Luka Modric, to cap another all-action performance, made a decisive block on Pizzi on 70 minutes. The chaos unleashed by a fired-up home side was enough for Ancelotti to haul Alonso off the bench a minute later in an attempt to regain control of the middle ground, but the introduction of Isco for Benzema unbalanced the side even more.

Espanyol finished the game very much in the ascendancy. Aguirre threw the raw and exciting Jhon Cordoba into the fray and immediately Arbeloa was exposed. An incisive through ball from Garcia put the young Colombian one-on-one with Casillas, who earned his King's Cup coin with a strong block. Marcelo later cleared off the line as Espanyol pressed for an equalizer, the home side piling pressure on and creating merry havoc on Real's back line.

But despite two fairly solid penalty claims for handball against Modric and Illarramendi and a frantic assault by the home side, Ancelotti and his side take an away-goal advantage into the second leg. That should be enough to see Real through to a semifinal against Athletic Bilbao or holders Atletico, neither of which will be so accommodating in defence or as forgiving as Espanyol when handed a sight of goal. But if Real could convert the number of chances created regularly into goals, there would be little any side could do in reply. As coaches often point out, creating chances is what it's all about, but sticking it in the back of the net -- or passing to a better-placed teammate to do so -- helps as well.

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