Another weekend of progress for Ronaldo-less Madrid

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

For a while it looked like Real Madrid could top La Liga at the end of Jornada for the first time this season, and in the end it still wasn’t so bad.

The roar was not just constrained to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium when Alberto Moreno fired Sevilla ahead after 15 minutes against Barcelona on Sunday, it could be heard from as far as the Spanish capital, too. Atletico had suffered a shock 2-0 defeat at Almeria just hours after Carlo Ancelotti’s men had fended off a spirited Villarreal side 4-2 at the Bernabeu on Saturday. Los Blancos were top on goal difference and a failure for Barca to win in Andalusia would have ensured another good week for Madrid in the race for the title.

Those weeks have been numerous since the turn of the year. The form of Barca and Atleti has dropped considerably in 2014 and a five-point gap held over Madrid had been slashed to the one in double-quick time. Un punto! Alberto Moreno’s strike in Seville had Blancos fans, and indeed Atleti supporters, on the edge of their seats. The Catalans had suffered a shock home defeat against Valencia last weekend. They couldn’t suffer back-to-back league defeats, could they?

Lionel Messi, questioned over his form for weeks, made sure they didn’t. A brace of goals for the Argentinian, along with strikes from Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas, saw Tata Martino’s side register a somewhat flattering 4-1 victory to make it a three-way tie at the top. La Liga, so often labelled a two-horse race, has welcomed another horse to the final furlong. Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid all on 57 points.

But despite Barca’s seemingly emphatic win in Seville, the weekend still belonged to a Ronaldo-less Madrid. Barca have been the mainstays at the summit for the majority of the campaign with Diego Simeone’s men upsetting the applecart for a brief weekend at the start of the season and more recently last weekend following Barca’s slip-up against Valencia. Now Madrid have a taste of the top. Their presence will be felt by those in Catalonia and by the Manzanares.

While Atleti and Barca have faltered since the winter break, Madrid have hit the ground running. Real Madrid’s sinking of the Yellow Submarines ensured their unbeaten run in all competitions stretched to 23 matches. It’s the best in the country, an achievement already cemented thanks to their midweek derby destruction of Los Colchoneros, who previously held that record, at the Bernabeu. Madrid have dropped two points since Christmas in one of the toughest matches on any calendar against Athletic Bilbao at the new San Mames. Atleti have dropped seven and Barca five.

Los Blancos showed they can handle the absence of their talisman in Cristiano Ronaldo, too. The Ballon d’Or winner started his three-match suspension following his red card in Bilbao but Madrid did not miss him. Gareth Bale returned from a calf injury scoring inside eight minutes and assisting Karim Benzema for Madrid’s second shortly after. When it wasn’t the Welshman wowing the crowd it was golden boy Jese, occupying Ronaldo’s left flank, notching a goal in his fourth straight game. Ronaldo, who celebrated his 29th birthday over the weekend, will be back in Ancelotti’s starting eleven after completing his ban but Madrid’s envious strength-in-depth, which will be incredibly useful as the season progresses, was highlighted.

In Luka Modric, Madrid arguably has the form player of the competition on its books. Spain thrives on statistics but the former Tottenham Hotspur man didn’t score or make an assist in the 4-2 win, instead he simply won the hearts of the Madridistas as he has been doing slowly this season. The loudest chants of the night were reserved for the midfield magician, who seemed to be all over the pitch. Not bad for a guy cast off as the worst signing in La Liga last season according to a supporters’ poll on Marca.

The only blot on Madrid’s copybook was an allowance to let Marcelino’s men score and end a run of seven matches in which Los Blancos have not conceded a goal on home soil. In fairness, both goals were superb strikes. The first, a rocket into the top corner by the unlikeliest of sources in right-back Mario (a once-in-a-blue-moon strike), the second a superb, curling free-kick by Giovani Dos Santos. Ancelotti was tempted to give the returning Raphael Varane a run-out in place of Pepe given his midweek cup exploits but not even the impressive young Frenchman could have done anything to deny the visitors.

The year has undoubtedly been Madrid’s so far but Los Blancos have also been helped by some favourable kick-off times, especially in the past four weekends when they’ve played before their table-topping rivals on three occasions. The games have to be won, but in getting points on the board first it piles the pressure. Next weekend, however, a different test awaits as Madrid play catch-up. Atleti and Barca both play at home on Saturday, against struggling Real Valladolid and Rayo Vallecano respectively, while Ancelotti’s side have to wait until Sunday for their short, and not usually straightforward trip to mid-table Getafe.

It’s a test this in-form Madrid side should be up for. Ronaldo will again be absent but Gareth Bale will have had at least 90 minutes under his belt and Jese will look to make the most of these chances before Madrid’s No.7 returns to action. The tension at the top can be cut by a knife. Whoever said La Liga is boring?

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