Madrid is well known for being one of the party capitals of the world. Late starts to your Saturday night out, late finishes – or is that early Sunday morning finishes? Either way, Madridistas will have been partying slightly harder then usual this Saturday just gone thanks to two massive results in La Liga, both in the Spanish capital.
Los Blancos started proceedings with a 4-1 victory over neighbours Atletico in a fiery match at the Bernabeu which saw the visitors, travel-shy going into the match this season in La Liga, take an unlikely lead. Two penalties, two sending-offs, play-acting and some tough tackles later and Jose Mourinho’s men finished up with a deserved three points which took them six clear of Barca at the top of the table.
Most would have expected that lead to be intact for a couple of hours, with Pep Guardiola’s men kicking-off shortly after the final whistle blew at the Bernabeu. But just up the road at Getafe, probably the biggest shock of the night came as one of Madrid’s lesser-known clubs chalked up the huge scalp of beating Barca 1-0 and give their larger, more prestigious neighbours Real a big advantage in La Liga already.
Of course, with the season not even at its halfway point yet it’d be somewhat naive to be crowning Los Blancos La Liga champions just yet. I’m sure those partying hard in Madrid on the back of Real’s success on Saturday night will feel the same way, too. There’s still a long way to go, and the first Clasico meeting of the season at the Bernabeu on Saturday, December 10 could swing the tide yet again.
But six points is a big difference in La Liga this season, no matter what point of the season we’re at. The top-two in Spain are expected to win all of their matches this season, with any slip-up of points causing a bit of a stir. Teams such as Valencia and Malaga are expected to offer tough tests, but tests that both Madrid and Barca are expected to pass unless they play below-par, or without a number of key players. That’s no disrespect to the rest of La Liga – both teams are not just head and shoulders above the rest of their competition this season domestically, but also in European competition.
It also means that for the Catalan club, next month’s massive clash at the Bernabeu has almost become a ‘must-win’. Victory for Mourinho’s men would, in my opinion, see Los Blancos put one hand on the title. A draw, too, would probably suit Madrid. But for Jose Mourinho, he’ll be going into the game as he would have done before Saturday’s drama, looking for maximum points.
The momentum has been with Madrid all season. A few blips in the early part of the season caused concern, but those bumps have since been smoothed over and not only are Los Merengues picking up wins on a consistent basis, they’re being ruthless in their wins and simply demolishing their opposition this term – with or without star-man Cristiano Ronaldo, it seems (going on the Champions League triumph over Dinamo last week). Over in Catalonia, while Pep’s boys have been keeping pace with Madrid for the most part, if still trailing, they’ve not looked the unbeatable side of last season. Let’s face it, Barca have been outstanding over the last few seasons and there was always going to come a time when they suffered a dip, no matter how long. Of course, Barca are still a force to be reckoned with, and I’d hate to be Rayo Vallecano, who travel to the Camp Nou next weekend with Barca desperate, no doubt, to bounce back.
But I digress. Saturday’s El Derbi was a brilliant win for Madrid, an entertaining affair for the neutral, and a disappointing, frustrating, although proud performance for Atleti fans. Gregorio Manzano can be proud of his players for the way they set-up on Saturday, and were rewarded by taking the lead. So quick out of the traps recently, Los Blancos couldn’t stamp their usual high-speed authority on early proceedings and their visitors more than matched them early on, resulting in a fine goal for Adrian to give them a shock lead. The biggest compliment I can make to Atleti is that Madrid could do little to stop the opener, it was well-worked and a goal Los Blancos would have been proud of.
The turning point came when Angel Di Maria’s superb touch put Karim Benzema through on goal and, when rounding Atleti goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, on-loan from Chelsea, the Frenchman was clipped and Courtois saw red, as well as conceding a penalty that Ronaldo tucked away to level matters. The award of a penalty? Undoubtedly correct. A red card? Disputed, but I felt (with all-white tinted spectacles, probably) that it WAS a clear goalscoring opportunity that was taken away from Benzema. Two Atleti players were racing back to stop the danger, but when Benzema had the ball he was in front of them both and had the goal at his mercy before he was hauled down.
The other talking point of the first-half? The theatrics of Di Maria, which I know have infuriated Atleti fans, and rightly so. The Argentinian winger is a quality player, no doubt about that, and he’s shown his worth to Madrid this season with a number of assists and goals. He does spoil that, however, with play-acting and theatrics – a number of examples which can be found in the first half of El Derbi. As a Madridista it’s hard to have a go at your own players, but some of Di Maria’s play-acting is embarrassing, and can, and probably has, gone against him on the pitch. While the aim is to obviously trick the referee and try and get players booked, it can work against him in that referees will see him as ‘the boy who cried wolf’. One incident in the first half proved that, when Felipe caught Di Maria almost at knee height, a very poor challenge, but if my memory serves me right he didn’t receive the booking he deserved.
Talking of tough tackles, many believe Los Blancos get all the decisions on their home patch, but that wasn’t exactly the case on Saturday night. While Atleti fans will say the officials favoured Los Blancos on the two sending-off decisions (Godin was the other Atleti player to see red), he certainly didn’t when Luis Perea’s shocking challenge on Ronaldo bore just a yellow card. The lunge, which CR7 was seemingly lucky to escape minor bruising on his ankle, could have easily seen red.
Reacting to the tough-tackling approach of Atleti, Mourinho said in his post-match press gathering: “My team wanted to win. My men didn’t want to play an ugly or rough game. They wanted to win. We played to win and won, despite our limps. Luckily we had carbon fibre shinpads that work really well. We did our job. We played with discipline and only received one yellow card in the entire 90 minutes. We remained calm, concentrated and didn’t respond to anything.” The stats back up his comments, with Atleti committing 25 fouls to the 8 of Los Blancos, as well as five yellow cards and two reds. The approach didn’t work, with second-half goals from Di Maria, Higuain and a second Ronaldo spot-kick sealing the win and the bragging rights.
A derby victory, a six-point gap at the top of La Liga and a midweek free from the Champions League means training will be pretty fun for Los Blancos this week as they prepare for their trip to struggling Sporting next weekend. This weekend could have been a massive one in the race for the title.