Real back on top after Granada win

Posted by Rob Train

Pressure in the title race may have shifted over the past few weeks, but there was a certain obligation to win on Saturday that, during the first half at least, preyed on Real Madrid. Visiting Granada have this season been one of the more productive teams on the road, winning four and picking up 14 points, the fifth-best record in the division and more than Lucas Alcaraz's side have managed at home.

Carlo Ancelotti acknowledged this before the match, saying that Granada is a team doing well and in good form. Despite the imbalance in terms of resources, this was never destined to be an easy afternoon for Real Madrid, but a professional performance resulted in a 2-0 victory, overnight leadership of La Liga and the equaling of the club's record of seven consecutive clean sheets set in 1994-95. Not a bad afternoon at the office all told.

- Report: Real go top with win

Before the opening whistle, Cristiano Ronaldo presented the Ballon d'Or to the Bernabeu and it was clear from the outset that the Portuguese forward fancied a goal to mark the occasion. Unfortunately, neither the prolific number seven nor his teammates were in particularly ruthless mood in the first half. Granada set up defensively, but to their credit played with patience and poise, enjoying more possession than Real up to the half hour point and moving the ball about purposefully, albeit with little threat to Diego Lopez, who was as much a spectator as the fans for the majority of the afternoon.

After four straight away games, the home support was anxious to see the best of a Real side that have hit their stride and, for the first time since Ancelotti took over, now has a fixed starting 11. Until January, the Italian had not fielded the same team twice; now he has played the same initial line-up in the past three matches, shifting to a 4-3-3 with Angel di Maria crow-barred in behind Ronaldo and Gareth Bale occupying the Argentinean's usual habitat on the right. Ancelotti noted in Friday's pre-match press conference that in this system there is little room for Isco, and the former Malaga man is going to find it increasingly hard to work his way back into a winning formation.

Luka Modric has been Real's player of the season so far -- with a nod to Ronaldo of course -- and again on Saturday the Croatian provided the link between the base and front of midfield, running tirelessly and allowing Xabi Alonso to marshal the match from the back. Although Real could have taken the lead several times in the first half -- Karim Benzema was again guilty of not watching his position with sufficient care -- Ronaldo's radar was off and Bale was also wayward in front of goal.

A stunning overhead kick at the end of the period would have been a fitting way for Ronaldo -- to whom a highlights montage on the stadium's big screens was dedicated before the game -- to cap his day but Roberto reacted equally acrobatically to deny the 2013 Ballon d'Or. Bale didn't emerge after the break, an off-kilter half punctuated by an almighty thump in the knackers courtesy of Jeison Murillo. Jese replaced the Welshman and put in a lively 45-minute shift.

The visiting goalkeeper, as has been the case several times this season, had a phenomenal match and kept Real at bay when a goal seemed inevitable. Of a total of 23 attempts, eight required the employment of the Granada keeper's gloves. Had Benzema been more alert to the offside trap, or Modric a little more fortuitous, it could have been more, but Granada also holds one of the better goals-against records in La Liga, and three points was the main target for Madrid.

In the face of Granada's stoic first half, Real pushed up after the break, forcing the visitors to defend almost on the edge of their area and allowing Alonso to lead the back four into a stranglehold in the opposition half.

When the breakthrough came, to script, Ronaldo displayed a little magic to break Granada's resistance. Picking up the ball just inside the box under the attention of several defenders, Ronaldo shuffled it from foot to foot as though it was on string and unleashed a left-footed drive that Roberto, unsighted, had no chance of getting a hand to. Granada were aggrieved that play had not been halted before the goal, but in reality the visitors had put the ball back into circulation with Mohamed Fatau writhing on the turf, leading to the move that resulted in 1-0. That Fatau trotted straight back onto the field apparently unharmed did not amuse a nervous Bernabeu, which had sent the home side down the tunnel at halftime with whistles ringing in their ears.

Benzema doubled the advantage shortly afterwards, steering home a Marcelo center from the penalty spot for his 11th league strike of the campaign. It was a cathartic moment for the France striker, who had had one goal disallowed and a shot ricochet off the bar from offside positions earlier on.

A raft of substitutions followed and the match lost a little of its intensity. Isco was afforded a trot out with Asier Illarramendi, while Alvaro Morata was again left to stew on the bench. Di Maria, off for the young Basque, received an ovation on the scene of his crotch-grabbing crime in Real's last league match at home against Celta. All in all, it couldn't have gone much better for Ancelotti's side on the day.

"They were very well set up in the first half and we found it difficult to break them down," noted Alonso after the match. "Until we scored the first goal it wasn't easy. We've pulled back a lot of points, we're playing with a great dynamic and getting results. There's a long way to go, but we are now where we want to be."

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