By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. When Real Madrid thrashed Celta Vigo 4-0 in the second leg of the last 16 of the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, the Santiago Bernabeu showed its unbridled affection to hat-trick hero Cristiano Ronaldo like never before. But on Saturday, when the Portuguese missed out through suspension in the dire draw at Osasuna, his importance to this team became even more apparent.
“Madrid are nothing without Cristiano,” was Marca‘s acerbic assessment of the damp display from Jose Mourinho’s men at bottom-of-the-table Osasuna as the champions failed to penetrate one of La Liga’s weakest teams on a forgettable night in Pamplona.
Ronaldo must have been a frustrated observer as his team-mates toiled in his absence. Last season, Madrid made light work of this fixture thanks to a double from the Portuguese (including one sensational strike) and a Karim Benzema volley reminiscent of Marco van Basten’s beautiful goal against USSR in the final of Euro ’88.
But there was no such inspiration this time. In fact, with Ronaldo absent, Benzema on the bench and Mesut Ozil also left out, Mourinho had omitted two of his top creative talents on a night when they needed to replace their finest footballer. Unsurprisingly, things did not go well.
Gonzalo Higuain was preferred in attack and the Argentine boasts a positive record against Osasuna, having netted six times versus the Navarrans, but he is hardly the man to provide a spark in the way that Benzema can and was not given suitable service by any of Angel Di Maria, Jose Callejon or Luka Modric. All three were willing, but each was disappointing. Ozil, who had created more chances than any other player in La Liga bar Joaquin of Malaga, should have started.
The point picked up in Pamplona (where Madrid have now lost, won and drawn in La Liga since Mourinho’s arrival at the club) means the champions are now 15 points adrift of Barcelona after 19 matches – and that gap could grow to 18 on Sunday should the Catalans conquer Malaga.
The Primera Division, at its halfway stage, is all but over, at least for Madrid. “The league is the most important competition of them all,” Mourinho preached on several occasions last term. But it isn’t for them any more – not now anyway. Not this season.
Perhaps the Portuguese was looking ahead to Madrid’s Copa del Rey quarter-final first leg against Valencia on Tuesday night. That now assumes far greater importance than La Liga for the capital club – as does the Champions League.
“We would take losing La Liga by 25 points and winning La Decima,” Iker Casillas claimed earlier on in the season. And with los Blancos looking likely to trail their fierce rivals by 18 points after 19 of their 38 games, his statement could prove closer than anyone ever imagined, at least in terms of their league position.
Luckily for Madrid, Cristiano will return to the side on Tuesday and with the Portuguese present and currently in fine form, Mourinho’s men stand a good chance in both cup competitions.
So everything will now be geared towards winning Copa and Champions League, but Mourinho must be concerned by the lack of discipline in his side at the moment. On Saturday it was Kaka, of all people, who became the latest Madrid man to earn a red card after he was dismissed for two yellows and spent just 18 minutes on the pitch. Three games in 2013 have now seen three dismissals for Madrid, with the Brazilian following Antonio Adan and Sergio Ramos to an early bath this year. In evenly disputed knock-out games, Madrid can ill afford such bad behaviour.
Ronaldo, meanwhile, had stepped up to inspire Madrid against both Real Sociedad and Celta Vigo in his side’s first two games of the year, and Saturday showed his incredible importance in this team, too. With Cristiano, anything is possible for this Madrid team in 2012-13. Anything but La Liga, that is …
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