Real Madrid 2 – 0 Valencia CF

Right. Now I’m not going to say that the cat’s eaten the pigeons, but it’s walking about the place with a fairly self-satisfied look on its face. And a feather sticking out of its mouth.

One can only assume that whatever it was that Pep Guardiola said to Unai Emery in that (hypothetical) phone call last night must have upset him. Possibly Guardiola made mention of Emery’s mother, because I can think of no other reason why Emery would have put out a side that appeared to have been given strict instructions to be absolutely, fantastically, mind-bogglingly useless.

They were poor, to put not too fine a point on it.  By 30 mins they were lucky not to be 3-nil down, after Higuain capitalised excellently on some sloppy play from the back to score the first, but then chipped just over the bar with Cesar stranded minutes later. Mere moments after that Van der Vaart saw an effort cleared off the line, after the ball pinged about the Valencia box for what seemed liked an eternity. It was, at that. For anyone wearing a Barca jersey.

Ronaldo was wrongly called offside, too, just before the interval, as he was through on goal. It takes a fairly massive stretch of the imagination to think that he would have slipped up.

So . . what happened, then? Well, other than the always excellent Ever Banega, I struggle to think of a single stand-out Valencia player. This was less a case of Madrid battling to a win as it was of Valencia handing it to them. Much like they handed them possession, invariably, after a few seconds of holding the ball. The game was won in the midfield, where Valencia were misplacing passes like the Quaid-e-Azam International Airport misplaces luggage . . . the ball’s intended destination often had little or no relation to where it actually ended up. Moreover,  Valencia played with no urgency . . forward balls were often aimless, and instead of attempting to catch out Real’s centre backs with Villa’s speed, they almost invariably chose to consolidate and allow Real’s troops time to filter back. Valencia’s traditional strength over the last few years has been their quick wing play, with Joaquin, Silva and Mata all either sliding balls into Villa, or cutting in, causing havoc in the inside channels. None of these things happened on Sunday – instead, Villa was the loneliest man in Madrid, and Silva, inexplicably, was playing in a role just behind him that placed him almost perfectly to be wholly irrelevant. He was neither in the midfield, nor providing a target for passes out of it.

To be fair, it was a solid performance from Real. Not spectacular, but solid. Gago and Xabi Alonso anchored the midfield, in front of the back four, providing a formidable six man wall in front of Saint Iker. Going forward, Guti and van der Vaart linked play, while Ronaldo and Higuain provided targets. By the end of the game Guti had been replaced by Granero, and Gago and Higuain by Lassandra Diarra and  Benzema – the system, however, remained unchanged. Nevertheless, this victory was less a case of Real capitalising on Valencia’s ineptitude, and more a question of them actually lowering themselves to just above Valencia’s level. Just enough to win. Real didn’t need to be brilliant – they didn’t even need to be particularly good, a fact borne out by the fact that save for a late shot by Silva that rattled against the bar, Casillas’s goal was never really under any threat in 90 mins of play. By the time that Ronaldo scored the second, in the 77th minute, the result was really in little doubt, and the goal was almost a relief. It meant one could stop willing Valencia to play better and be inevitably disappointed.

As far as the title race is concerned, you can be sure that Real will have the bit between their teeth now, and won’t allow Barca a moment’s rest. La Liga is their only hope for silverware this season, having been knocked out of every other competition. Barca, meanwhile, have to contend with a Champions League semi-final against Inter, and possibly a final. Real’s run-in, too, is marginally easier than Barca’s, with just a possibly tricky tie against Athletic Bilbao to be negotiated, while Barca will host Villareal before travelling to the Sanchez Pizjuan to face Sevilla.

Hold on, folks. This promises to be bumpy.

– el kapitan

Xabi Alonso (left) and David Albelda (right) engage in a strange ritual dance
in the midfield that is almost totally, but not quite, unlike football.

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