Monday, 10 January 2011

Real Madrid 4 Villarreal 2

FT: Real Madrid 4 (Ronaldo 8, 45 (+1) & 78, Kaka 80) – Villarreal 2 (Cani 6, Marco Ruben 17)

Real Madrid kept up the pressure on Barcelona at the top of La Liga with an enthralling 4-2 win over Villarreal.

Not for the first time this season Los Merengues had Cristiano Ronaldo to thank for the victory. The Portuguese bagging his fourth hat-trick at the Bernabéu this season, his second in consecutive home games, as Real twice came from behind to move 11 points clear of their opponents.

The game began at a blistering pace with three goals inside the first 20 minutes. Villarreal in particular had begun with real attacking intent and could have been ahead within the first minute. The outstanding Santi Cazorla making room for a shot that Sergio Ramos deflected away for a corner. However, the opening goal did arrive for the visitors only five minutes later. In a similar move to the one that cut the Valencia defence open for Villarreal’s third goal on Wednesday night, Cazorla played the ball inside to Giuseppe Rossi who spun before laying the ball into Cani. The Spaniard lifting the ball perfectly over Iker Casillas into the far corner.

The hosts responded immediately. Again good build-up play involving Karim Benzema and Mesut Özil found the German free on the right side of the penalty area before he squared for Ronaldo to fire into an empty net.

In a frantic end to end encounter Rossi had a good penalty appeal turned down after a clumsy challenge from Xabi Alonso on 15 minutes. Two minutes later the visitors were back in front. Cani this time playing provider as he cut open a static Real defence with a pass through the middle for Marco Ruben. The Argentine, only starting in the absence of Nilmar through injury, was calmness personified with a finish so delicate and precise it was as if he had used a sand-wedge to flight the ball over the on-rushing Casillas.

Cazorla then had a goal rightly ruled out for offside but Jose Mourinho’s men were in severe danger of losing what could have been a critical third goal. As he admitted afterwards 3-1 would have been a fairer reflection of the first-half showing from both sides.

The interesting tactical point of Villarreal’s approach was not even their boldness in ruthlessly attacking Real in a way no visiting team has at the Bernabéu so far this season. Rather it was the style with which they implemented this attacking intent. By using Cani and Cazorla in extremely narrow positions, they attempted to replicate Barcelona’s short passing style in midfield by using the four of Bruno, Borja Valero, Cani and Cazorla against the Real two of Lassana Diarra and Alonso. This put great responsibility of Joan Capdevilla and Angel Lopez to provide width from the full-back positions – a strain that eventually told in the second-half.

Crucially Real managed to go in level at half-time - again thanks to Ronaldo. This time stealing in ahead of Diego Lopez to nod in an Alonso free-kick thirty seconds before the break.

Eager to avoid a first home league defeat in nearly eight years, Mourinho made two significant changes at half-time. Firstly, he replaced Diarra with the more composed Sammi Khedira and also moved Raul Albiol, who had endured a torrid first-half, to right-back with Ramos moving into central defence.

The changes paid off as Real enjoyed much more control of the game in the second period. Villarreal by contrast appeared to wilt - partly due to the after effects of their stunning comeback against Valencia in midweek and also due to the sheer intensity they had played with in the first-half.

Lopez denied Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria and Benzema within a five minute period as Real searched for the vital third goal. However, when it did arrive there was a touch of fortune. Kaka, who had replaced Albiol with 20 minutes remaining, swung over a cross towards a seemingly offside Di Maria. Lopez parried both the Argentine’s header and Ronaldo’s rebound but when the ball fell back to the Portuguese striker he made no mistake to complete the perfect hat-trick of right-foot, header and left-foot.

The decision not to give offside was one too far for Villarreal manager, Juan Carlos Garrido, who was sent to the stands for his protestations. He later claimed that only in the second-half did he realise how hard it was to win at the Bernabeu as the referees are scared to give decisions against the home side and that there had been not just one but two offside decisions missed in the lead up to Real’s third goal.

Kaka finished the game as a contest with ten minutes remaining. Again Ronaldo was heavily involved as he laid the ball into the path of the Brazilian to slide past Lopez. It was a sweet moment for the world’s second most expensive player as it was only his second appearance following a six month lay-off through injury. However, it caused more consternation on the touchline as Mourinho celebrated exuberantly in front of the Villarreal bench. The visiting players were so up in arms that Cani even through a water bottle at the Portuguese coach who, in his own inimitable style, later claimed he was merely celebrating with his son who always sits behind the opposition dugout. Sound ridiculous? Well, not as ridiculous as the fact that Mourinho has now gone 145 home league games unbeaten. Think that is ridiculous? How about the fact that Ronaldo’s three goals took his tally to 23 in 18 league games this season, 31 in all competitions for club and country.

La Liga may suffer from a lack of competition but with every passing week the feeling that we are witnessing something truly historic gets more profound. In Messi and Ronaldo we are not just watching two players at the top of their game, we are not even just watching the two best players in the world, we are watching two of the best players ever going head-to-head every week in a manner that no league has ever witnessed.

The price to pay for watching such mastery is witnessing mere mortals being put to the slaughter on a weekly basis. Villarreal provide a rare glimpse of hope. My favourite game of this season was the yellow submarine’s trip to the Camp Nou – a match of unparalleled intensity and technical ability. Tonight’s offering was my second favourite. As Sid Lowe stated after Villarreal’s 3-1 defeat in the Camp Nou, there is no doubt that this is a two-horse race but the third horse is no donkey. Garrido’s men proved that again this evening. It would be no surprise if the best two games remaining this season come when the big two visit El Madrigal.

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