Real stroll into Copa final

Posted by Rob Train

Dani Pozo/AFP/Getty ImagesCristiano Ronaldo converted two penalty kicks within the first 20 minutes to see off city rivals Atletico in the Copa del Rey.

A perfectly vile evening in Madrid greeted the return leg of the Copa del Rey clash between Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid, but a modest turnout at the Vicente Calderon owed more to the nature of the clash than what mother nature is currently throwing about.

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This tie was effectively sealed in the first match when Real triumphed 3-0 at the Bernabeu. Diego Simeone would never go so far as to admit defeat before a ball had been kicked, but his line-up certainly suggested that the Atletico coach had half an eye on the weekend's league match against Valladolid and the still tangible pursuit of the title. Short of an miracle, there was not much but pride at stake in this encounter.

Simeone already had to contend with the absence of both his first-choice strikers, his goalkeeper and his left back but chose to also rest Juanfran, club captain Gabi, Diego Godin and Arda Turan in tacit admission that his team's fields of operation had been reduced to two from three last week. His opposite number Carlo Ancelotti did likewise, leaving out Angel di Maria, Karim Benzema, Pepe and Jese Rodriguez, further confirmation of the young canterano's current standing in the pecking order.

Despite appearances, neither side was quite ready to admit to a dead rubber, but any notion that a genuine contest was to unravel vanished as early as the sixth minute when Cristiano Ronaldo was brought down in the area by Atletico's 19-year-old promise Javier Manquillo. Currently suspended from league action, the Portugal captain exorcised a weekend of inactivity with a fierce drive that left Dani Aranzubia with no chance.

The Calderon had barely had time to digest the task facing their team when the former Depor keeper was picking the ball out of the same corner of his net again. Stand-in left back Emiliano Insua floored Gareth Bale in a challenge far more clear-cut than Manquillo's indiscretion and Ronaldo again buried the ball to Aranzubia's right, killing off the match and the tie in one fell stroke.

With just Raul Garcia up front and little in the way of imperative, Atletico lost the contest there and then. Few in the stadium would have been that bothered had the referee blown for full time after 16 minutes, but if nothing else there was a 20-match unbeaten home streak to consider. Garcia rattled a post between Ronaldo's spot-kicks, but Iker Casillas, who has not yet been beaten in the cup and hasn't conceded since the 6-1 win over Galatasaray, was barely needed as both sides settled into a war of non-attrition.

Bright spots for Real included Raphael Varane's first start since November 19 and a lively showing from Isco, who was handed a rare start, but there was little in the encounter for Ancelotti to mull over ahead of greater challenges to come. With Atletico roundly beaten over two legs before halftime, Real's players allowed themselves to be drawn into a series of contentious duels, but nobody on the field was so fired up as to risk a suspension or injury.

Alvaro Arbeloa and Asier Illarramendi found their way into the book for clumsy challenges, as did Ronaldo, who showed no malice in an aerial tussle with Manquillo that left the youngster in a heap after a horrific vertical fall onto his head. Ronaldo displayed sportsmanship after the incident, but having already condemned Atletico and pulled out his box of tricks and flicks to taunt the home crowd, the number 7 elicited the biggest cheer of the night when he was unceremoniously dumped on his backside by substitute Juanfran early in the second half.

The second period was as flat as a Spain's Got Talent audition; the only questions that remained were whether Ronaldo would bag a hat-trick or if Casillas would swallow a goal. Ronaldo had one decent chance but fired straight at Aranzubia while a late Mario Suarez header flashed past the Spain keeper's near post. Casillas then reacted instinctively to a Jose Sosa half-volley but that was as close as Atletico came to halting his run of more than 850 minutes unbeaten. Cristian Rodriguez, nicknamed The Onion "because he makes defenders cry" summed up Atletico's miserable week as he hammered a shot out for a throw-in.

A rarer sight than Rodriguez hitting the target was Ronaldo being substituted on 75 minutes for Jese. Atletico's tormentor-in-chief left the field to a chorus of jeers and whistles that will have been music to his ears after last season's cup final and September's home defeat in the league.

The rojiblancos have not lost three straight games in three years, a statistic Simeone will not relish being added to his stellar record at the club. Ancelotti, meanwhile, is in better shape at this stage of the season than either Jose Mourinho or Manuel Pellegrini were in their first at Real Madrid.

The boot in the capital city has for now been returned to the other foot -- if it ever really left. The two Madrid sides meet again in three weeks in a top-of-the-table six-pointer with Simeone's side shaken -- if not much stirred on Tuesday -- and Ancelotti's looking every inch the team in the ascendancy. Add a comprehensively deserved cup final in April, and it's been a very decent few of weeks for the Italian’s project.


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