Ronaldo heroics mask Madrid issues
Real Madrid's 4-1 Primera Division stroll over a disappointing Sevilla at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu featured yet another Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick. However, the result did little to clear up some lingering doubts elsewhere in Jose Mourinho's side ahead of Wednesday's Champions League last-16 first leg tie against Manchester United.
Madrid's first goal from Karim Benzema was rather fortunate, their second from Ronaldo was an absolute screamer and then Sevilla pretty much folded. With the visitors offering little in attack - and gaping holes in defence - the former Old Trafford hero gleefully added two more on the break after half-time, completing his 20th treble since he left England.
Mourinho would presumably have preferred a stiffer test to help him judge form and condition of some players ahead of United's visit. With Barcelona clear in La Liga, both his matchday squad and team were both chosen with more than half an eye on Wednesday.
Xabi Alonso and Raphael Varane were not risked due to their ongoing groin and hamstring issues, while Angel di Maria and Marcelo were both dropped from the squad, apparently for not showing enough commitment in recent games.
The gaps were filled with fifth-choice Raul Albiol starting at centre-half, Michael Essien and Luka Modric in midfield and both Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain in attack. That Kaka got only his second start since October showed for sure that Mourinho's real focus lay elsewhere.
Madrid assistant coach Aitor Karanka admitted as much when as usual he stood in for Mourinho to face reporters' questions after the game, while also as usual giving little away with his answers.
"We had a chance to give some important players a rest today," he said. "The players who played showed they are at a good level and could all play [against United]. Madrid are coming into that game well, and not just because of today's result."
That last assertion is debatable. Alonso's groin problem in particular must now be concerning, given his importance to the team in both attack and defence. On current form Essien and Modric together would struggle to fill the gap. The on-loan Chelsea man, more impressive at right-back than in midfield recently, had little impact on the game apart from a few shuddering first-half challenges.
Modric, who admitted himself on Friday that he has not yet shown his best form in Spain, was again patchy. He worked hard, showed in both defence and attack, but again passed up an opportunity to show he could fill Alonso's shoes and really run a game. There was also a tendency to get harried out of possession in dangerous areas, not something which Mourinho would approve of.
In-form German duo Khedira and Ozil, who both spent the 90 minutes on the bench, will both surely come back in on Wednesday, and will likely make a huge difference. That still leaves one spot open. If Di Maria remains in Mourinho's bad-books, Modric looks the most likely to start, with Ozil then pushed out to the right-wing. Kaka played well and worked hard, but it would be a huge shock if he was trusted with a start. The feeling is though that the Argentine winger - so brilliant in the 5-0 at Valencia, but then limp again in the 0-1 defeat at Granada last Saturday - will be given another chance.
In defence Madrid - with three of the four likely to start against United playing all 90 minutes - again did not look fully convincing. There were the usual set-piece jitters, which Federico Fazio and Alvaro Negredo almost took advantage of in the first half.
Manu del Moral's consolation came late with fans already streaming out of the stadium, but Sergio Ramos, and especially Alvaro Arbeloa, were culpable as the Sevilla sub was allowed to run from near half-way into a shooting position inside the area without facing a proper challenge. Both will stay in the team, as will Fabio Coentrao with Marcelo out of shape, but the last defensive spot is still up for grabs. Teenager Varane - so brilliant against Barca last month - is favourite if he is fit, but Pepe looked keen when given 30 minutes in midfield on his first appearance since an ankle operation in early January.
Del Moral's goal meant keeper Diego Lopez has conceded exactly once in each of his three appearances since rejoining the club last month from Sevilla for €3.5 million.That he has started all three games is however a sign that Antonio Adan's time as first choice following Iker Casillas's injury has been as short-lived as expected.
That leaves the forward line, where neither Higuain nor Benzema have looked in particularly good nick lately. This was their first start together this season, with Higuain at centre-forward and Benzema on the right of the line of three behind. Both worked hard, but neither really made a convincing case for a starting jersey on Wednesday.
Benzema's goal was from two inches after a Ronaldo cross richocheted off diving keeper Beto and prone defender Fernando Navarro. Apart from a nice unselfish assist for Ronaldo's third, the Argentine's most notable act was the pointless foul on Navarro with 25 minutes which brought a second yellow card.
Karanka's suggestion that both could start against United was likely just misinformation.
"The two together could be an option," he said. "Many people always ask for that. Both players attitude was good, which is always what we want. The better they both are, the better for everyone."
Benzema remains more likely to start as a roving number nine, but Ferguson's pre-game defensive planning will surely focus around just one man. Ronaldo's 21st career treble means he has 11 goals in five La Liga games in 2013, not counting own-goal last weekend in Granada. He now has 182 goals in 179 games for Madrid, upping his rate from the comparatively pedestrian 118 goals in 292 games for United.
This is all the more impressive considering he admitted himself last week that he has been troubled lately by a thigh-strain. In that same interview Ronaldo said the 'unhappiness' he spoke of earlier in the season had passed, and his relationship with the Bernabeu crowd was now excellent. This was clear when 65,000 home fans rose to their feet to applaud him off midway through the second half, with his job already done.
"He has been getting this affection from the crowd for a while now," said Karanka, who confirmed the substitution had not been due to an injury worry. "They know how important he is for the team. A player like him, at this level, is vital."
Given the continuing issues elsewhere in the side, that is at least one Karanka comment that everyone can agree with.