Real Madrid extend league lead in costly manner against Sevilla
MADRID -- Three quick thoughts from the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu as an under-par Real Madrid beat Sevilla 2-1 to stretch their lead atop the La Liga table.
1. Madrid hang on to stretch lead to four points
This game, which was initially postponed due to Madrid's successful trip to the Club World Cup in December, had already been mentally pencilled in as three points by many fans of Los Blancos and pundits. However, the game turned out to be not at all as straightforward as expected.
With Cristiano Ronaldo sitting out the second and last game of his ban for being sent off at Cordoba recently, coach Carlo Ancelotti resisted the temptation to rest any of this other galacticos, but even still Los Blancos were hanging on by the end.
This was another stop-start performance by Ancelotti's men. At times, especially in attack, they were excellent. The home team's first chance was converted clinically, with James Rodriguez diving to head home Marcelo's inviting cross -- the second time in two games that this connection had paid off.
Madrid's second goal, scored just after the hour mark by substitute Jese Rodriguez, was also really well made and taken. A typical counter-attack included Isco and Karim Benzema, before the fit-again youngster finished with aplomb at the back post.
Los Blancos looked to be coasting then, but Sevilla refused to give up. And doubts grew through the second half. Gareth Bale once again decided to shoot instead of passing to Benzema when presented with the chance to argue against his growing reputation as a selfish player. Injuries and uncertainty at the back eventually led to a lack of composure throughout the team.
After Sevilla substitute Iago Aspas made it 2-1 with 10 minutes remaining, the Bernabeu crowd were biting their nails as goalkeeper Iker Casillas got away with coming for a number of dangerous crosses into the box. The final whistle was greeted with a roar, not of triumph, but of relief.
When all is said and done, though, the three points put Madrid four clear ahead of second-placed Barcelona in the La Liga table. It means that despite not really firing so far in 2015, Los Blancos have managed to maintain a handy distance in the table. This even with the blaugrana outfit's excellent return to form lately following the tension between superstar Lionel Messi and coach Luis Enrique.
2. Injury/selection problems mounting for Ancelotti
There was a pretty big downside to the night for Madrid, however. On just seven minutes centre-back Sergio Ramos limped off with a suspected left hamstring problem. He was soon followed to the dressing rooms by James, who walked straight off the pitch after picking up an issue with his foot. Both problems immediately looked serious enough to make them doubts for Madrid's next game.
Which just happens to be Saturday's lunchtime trip across town to the Estadio Vicente Calderon, to face an Atletico Madrid side who are currently in third spot, but have won three and drawn two of the five "derbis" played across all competitions in 2014-15 so far.
Ancelotti's selection headache worsened in the second half. Left-back Marcelo picked up a needless yellow card for pulling back Sevilla winger Vitolo, with the score at 2-0 and his side in full control. The Brazilian left-back had played pretty well until then in what was his 300th appearance in all competitions for Madrid, but really he should have known a fifth booking of the season would bring a ban for Saturday's game.
With Fabio Coentrao currently sidelined, Alvaro Arbeloa will likely now play left-back at the Calderon. He did not have a good night in his usual right-back role here. Arbeloa was given a bit of a chasing by Sevilla winger Vitolo, and was also lucky the referee missed his raised arm into the face of visiting centre-forward Carlos Bacca, which could have been a penalty and yellow at least.
First-choice right-back Dani Carvajal will surely return for the Calderon on Saturday, but there looks a good chance that he will be the only first-choice member of Ancelotti's back four available.
Raphael Varane impressed here with his usual pace and composure, and home-grown Nacho Rodriguez rarely lets Madrid down. But facing up to Atletico's in-form Mario Mandzukic and Antoine Griezmann on Saturday, at a fired-up Calderon, will be a big test for the youngsters.
3. Frustration again for Sevilla
Sevilla travelled to the Bernabeu having won four of their past five games in La Liga, but having been well beaten in all of their most difficult away trips during the first half of the season. A 4-0 humbling at Atletico Madrid in September was followed by a 5-1 hammering at Barcelona in November, and 10 days ago Unai Emery's team were outfought 3-1 at Valencia. They will also likely have travelled up remembering last season's 7-3 hammering here.
The visitors started here as if keen to put on a better show, and really should have been at least a goal up early. Vitolo was clear one-on-one with Casillas after just two minutes, but the Madrid keeper saved well. Midfielder Vicente Iborra got around Casillas soon after, but hit the post. From the subsequent corner Grzegorz Krychowiak was unmarked when nodding wide from 3 yards.
By this stage Madrid were already 1-0 up, with the Sevilla offside trap having malfunctioned badly for James' opener. The mistake was even more grave for the home side's second, when Bacca mis-hit a simple pass straight to Isco, who was standing on his own 45 yards from the Sevilla goal. Few teams punish those errors as well as Madrid, and seconds later Jese was wheeling away in celebration.
Things went from bad to worse when goalkeeper Beto was stretchered off after an aerial challenge from Benzema. The contact looked pretty bad on the replay, although the referee did not see any intent from the Frenchman. The Andalucians' frustration showed with six players booked by midway through the second half, often for apparently taking out frustration with silly fouls.
Even with everything apparently going against them, Emery's side kept attacking. Iborra continued to show why he's not a good finisher, slicing wide from straight in front of goal. But substitute Aspas showed much better poaching skills, pulling one back from close range after Vitolo had once more got the better of Arbeloa down the wing.
In the end, Sevilla ran out of time, and they head back south again with nothing. But this was by far their best showing of the season at one of the "bigger" La Liga stadiums.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan