By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
La Liga is all but over. Jose Mourinho admitted as much after seeing his side held at home by lowly Espanyol. Later on Sunday, Barcelona’s thrashing of Atletico Madrid at Camp Nou ensured the Catalans opened up a nine-point lead at the top of the Primera Division and moved 13 clear of Real. “Barcelona are superior,” noted Diego Simeone. And he added: “La Liga is boring”.
That’s hardly Barca’s fault. The Catalans have been brilliant in the league this term, winning 15 of their 16 games and ceding their only points in an entertaining 2-2 draw at home to Madrid which could have been won by either side.
Jose Mourinho’s men were excellent that night in early October at Camp Nou, but problems persist for the champions. In fact, things are worse with each passing week for the Portuguese. On Saturday, he was handed a confidence vote from president Florentino Perez, but just a day later his name was not announced as he emerged on the pitch at Santiago Bernabeu and as he departed some two hours later, it was amid a chorus of jeers.
Just a few months ago, Mourinho’s Madrid sealed the best league season in the club’s history as they racked up a record 100 points to claim the championship in some style. But that will seem a distant dream now for madridistas. On Sunday they were forced to endure a new nightmare as Espanyol equalised right at the end to claim a point.
And it had been coming.
Madrid, missing Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain through injury, missed chances in the first half but went in at the break on level terms after Cristiano Ronaldo – who had earlier erred – improvised impressively to finish from Sami Khedira’s cross moments before the interval.
Psychologically, it was the perfect way to end what had been a largely disappointing first half for the home team and when Fabio Coentrao made it 2-1 shortly after the interval, that appeared to be that.
But Madrid seldom seemed sure of themselves and struggled to carve out opportunities against a well-organised Espanyol side who posed plenty of danger on the break. Sergio Garcia had got between Sergio Ramos and Pepe to race clear and rifle home the opener, and the former Spain striker was afforded several more chances in the first 45 minutes.
Madrid, meanwhile, do not seem to know what to do much of the time when they are forced to take the initiative against a side defending deeply. This is nothing new and Mourinho’s men have already suffered this term at the hands of lesser lights such as Getafe, Betis and Celta Vigo. When forced onto the front foot, the champions cannot seem to open up teams as much or as ably as they should and would like. Or as Barcelona do.
Madrid simply do not have the players for a Barca-style passing and possession game, but with creative gems such as Mesut Ozil, Luka Modric, Kaka and Angel Di Maria at their disposal, as well as Ronaldo and many more, it shouldn’t be such a struggle.
In 2011-12, Madrid consistently overpowered teams with individual brilliance as Ronaldo, Benzema and Higuain all shone at key times, netting a glutful of goals between them, while the other forwards all played their part as well. This term, however, Cristiano has been at his breathtaking best only intermittently, while the two strikers have lacked both form and fitness, Di Maria has been nothing short of a disaster and Kaka has hardly been involved.
Without those magic moments from their individuals and lacking a clear gameplan other than the counter-attacking football which can prove so devastating yet needs the opponents to come out and play higher up the pitch, Madrid look a little lost this time around.
Later on Sunday, they were given a glimpse of exactly what they were missing as Barca, with the best individual of them all – Lionel Messi – and a defined footballing philosophy, ended their title hopes and, seemingly, those of Atletico as well with a 4-1 win over Simeone’s side at Camp Nou.
No team now looks likely to catch the Catalans in La Liga, but in order to overcome defensive rivals both at home and in Europe for the remainder of this season and beyond, the capital club must add more to their game in the coming weeks and months. It’s time for Mourinho’s Madrid to evolve.
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