x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Stellar cast finally look to be the Real deal

Pellegrini's side, assembled quickly and at great expense, are finishing the season like a runaway juggernaut.

Real Madrid players celebrate Rafael van der Vaart's winner against Sevilla at the Bernabeu on Saturday that saw them move ahead of Barcelona at the top of the table on goal difference.
Real Madrid players celebrate Rafael van der Vaart's winner against Sevilla at the Bernabeu on Saturday that saw them move ahead of Barcelona at the top of the table on goal difference.

For the first time this season, Real Madrid have the initiative in the race for the Primera Liga title. Saturday's 3-2 win over Sevilla at the Bernabeu pushed Los Blancos to the top of the table, albeit only in terms of their current position. They have a better goal difference than eternal rivals Barcelona, but, in Spain, it's the result of the head-to-head games between foes on the same points which count at the end of the season.

Barcelona won the only game between the two teams earlier this season, but the Catalans travel to Madrid on Sunday April 11 and few doubt where the impetus lies. Manuel Pellegrini's side have chipped away at Barca's five-point lead of three weeks ago and it is they, rather than the champions, who are growing stronger. Real supporters hope that the Sevilla victory becomes a microcosm for this term in which they started slowly and are finishing with unrivalled verve. In the best game in Spain so far this season, Sevilla led by two goals after 53 minutes, silencing the expectant crowd, and were on their way to repeating their home victory over Real in October. And, just as he had troubled Barca in the Copa del Rey at Camp Nou, Diego Perrotti, the Argentine winger, constantly unsettled the Real defence.

With Barcelona being held to a 2-2 draw away to Almeria earlier in the evening, Real fluffed their lines early in the game. Their pristine record of 12 consecutive home league wins looked threatened and fans appeared baffled that Pellegrini had gone for a formation which included three defensive midfielders: Lassana Diarra, Xabi Alonso and Marcelo. They wondered if Real were ever going to beat a big team having already lost to AC Milan, Barca, Sevilla and Wednesday's Champions League opponents, Lyon, this season.

Two substitutions changed the game irrevocably. Real's Spanish midfield stalwart Guti replaced Diarra, while the often frustrated Dutchman, Rafael van der Vaart, came on for the defender Alvaro Arbeloa after 54 minutes. Real were instantly revitalised - or in Pellegrini's terms "they breathed air into the team" - and began to dominate, their physical presence and fitness troubling Sevilla every bit as much as their talent.

They pulled a goal back within five minutes through Cristiano Ronaldo and were level four minutes later through Sergio Ramos. Urged on by a crowd of 80,000, who sense greater things to come, they were rewarded by Van der Vaart's winner in stoppage-time. The relief was tangible, the celebrations a sign of Real's growing confidence that they are creating an indomitable team spirit, that their quickly and expensively assembled stellar squad are starting to bear fruit to challenge Barcelona's hegemony.

The Catalans' dropped points made Real's victory even sweeter, with Barca seeing their coach, Pep Guardiola, and their striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, sent off. Whisper it quietly, but Barca looked a much better outfit without the Swedish forward. Inflated ticket prices meant just 11,767 fans - less than half the capacity of the Juegos del Mediterraneo stadium - watched Almeria twice take the lead and Barca twice level the scores through Lionel Messi on Saturday.

Ibrahimovic's 59th-minute dismissal meant Barca's four attackers were down to three, but suddenly granted more space in which to flourish. Guardiola's side have 62 points, just a point less than at the same stage last season, and while their defence is seven goals better off, they have scored 15 fewer goals this season. Last season's goalscoring triumvirate of Samuel Eto'o, Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry now seems a distant memory.

Messi, the Fifa World Footballer of the Year, continues to shine and his two goals against Almeira moved him top of the goalscoring charts with 19. But with Eto'o jettisoned in Milan with Inter and Henry reduced to a peripheral role on the bench. The France captain was booed by his compatriots in Paris last week as France were outclassed by Spain. Henry has cut a forlorn figure of late and admitted: "This is a new challenge for me in my career, playing 25 minutes here, another 15 minutes there."

Guardiola added: "He knows he is not at his best, and he is fighting against that. He is aware that he needs to do better, although I think he is doing better than he himself believes." With seven straight league wins since their January loss at Athletic Bilbao, Madrid's improvement has left Barca nervy and some distance from the form they enjoyed as they thrilled world football last season. Saturday's home game against third placed Valencia is going to be a significant test of their nerve, while Madrid's attention switches to Wednesday's key Champions league game against Lyon.

With seven consecutive league wins since their January loss at Athletic Bilbao, Real's improvement has left Barca nervy and some distance from the form they enjoyed as they thrilled world football last season. Saturday's home game against third-placed Valencia is going to be a significant test of their nerve, while Real's attention switches to Wednesday's Champions league game against Lyon. @Email:sports@thenational.ae