Monday, 14 February 2011

Match Report: Espanyol 0 Real Madrid 1

So, at the end of an amazing weekend ‘hay liga’ - but how Real Madrid had to fight to make it so.

1-0 away to a side struggling since the loss of key players in January may not seem that impressive. But given the circumstances this was undoubtedly the biggest result and performance of Jose Mourinho’s time as manager at the Bernabéu.

After Barcelona’s 1-1 draw in Gijon last night the pressure was on Mourinho’s men to cut the gap at the top to five points. After two minutes the pressure had been ratcheted up at least another five points. A long ball through the middle found José María Callejón who poked the ball past Iker Casillas and in traditional Callejón style fell to the ground. Contact was minimal but probably just enough to deserve a foul and a red card for the Spanish captain.

Yet, with 10 men for 91 minutes Real were resilient in defence (protecting their young substitute goalkeeper, Antonio Adán, exceptionally well), broke with vigour and pace and if it hadn’t been for Carlos Kameni in the Espanyol goal (or arguably more accurately Emmanuel Adebayor’s finishing) Real could have had as many goals as they had players.

In the end it was stand-in captain Marcelo who got the only goal as Espanyol struggled to make the extra man count throughout the 90 minutes.

However, they could have been ahead on 13 minutes. Javi Marquez’s volley from the edge of the area deflected just wide, and from the resulting corner the same player’s drive was spooned over his own crossbar by Adebayor.

Real then began to take control. Marcelo and Sami Khedira fired in warning shots that deflected just over and Kameni bundled wide respectively, before the Brazilian full-back made the breakthrough on 24 minutes.

Cristiano Ronaldo, doing what he so often doesn’t, faking the shot to pull the defence out of position and playing in Marcelo who fired forcefully past Kameni at the near post. The goalkeeper may be slightly disappointed to have conceded given the angle of the shot but it was hit with such ferocity it is hard to be critical.

And within a minute it was nearly two. Adebayor passing up the first of his many chances with a drive that Kameni parried away to safety.

The Togolese was released in behind the Espanyol defence again eight minutes before half-time by a wonderful pass from Xabi Alonso. However, after seeing off the defender and settling himself Adebayor only contrived to spoon the ball up onto the top of the bar.

Kameni had to be on guard again to deny Ronaldo just before the break as Real’s pace on the counter was proving too much for a makeshift Espanyol backline.

In the second-half the pace and intensity of the game remained but without the same level of incident and goalmouth action. Real seemed happier to sit deep and less quick to throw bodies forward on the counter. Meanwhile, despite having more possession Espanyol lacked any sort of cutting edge in the final third. After all the talk about his contract situation in the week, Pepe more than earning his money with a fine display of aggressive defending.

Both Callejón and Ronaldo then fired across goal when a cut back to teammates in better positions might have been the better option.

With 10 minutes to go Mourinho sent on Lassana Diarra for Mesut Ozil. The Portuguese coach obviously hoping that an extra destroyer in the midfield could see the game out. The only problem for Mourinho was that his real destroyer was playing as the frontman as time and again good work by Ronaldo was not capitalised on by Adebayor.

With nine minutes to go the Portuguese winger exchanged passes with the Manchester City loanee before laying the ball across the six-yard box; Kameni getting down well to block Adebayor’s attempt to pass the ball into the net. Judging by Mourinho’s reaction he just wished he had got that number 9 in January…..oh wait.

Two minutes later and it was confirmed that Adebayor was trying to give his Portuguese teammate and coach a coronary. More good work by Ronaldo (maybe this is why he doesn’t normally pass) setting the former Arsenal man free on goal but again he was denied by the body of Kameni.

Joan Verdú then nearly nicked a point for the hosts with their best attempt of the second-half. His fine attempted chip though was well pouched by Adán.

While the plaudits will rightly go to the visitors this was a huge missed opportunity for Espanyol. Villarreal’s defeat earlier in the day had opened the door back into the Champions League race but without Osvaldo in attack and Victor Ruiz in defence they look a pale shadow of the side that did so well through the first 19 games of the season.

Not that Mourinho, Marca or the rest of the Madristas will care about that. Should the 31 times Champions somehow make it 32 come May, this weekend will have been the turning point.

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