James Rodriguez's wonder goal pushes Real Madrid to routine win
MADRID, Spain -- Three things from the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu as Real Madrid keep up their La Liga title chase with a routine, uninspiring 3-0 win over Almeria on Wednesday evening.
1. James brightens things up
Real Madrid eventually won easily, but this was far from a classic. Both sides were sloppy in possession through the opening stages, and there was little goalmouth action to get excited about. Cristiano Ronaldo's 30-yard free kick which dipped pretty viciously onto the roof of the net was a rare moment of excitement through the opening half-hour.
Almeria had clearly come to see how long they could hold on to a 0-0 score line, but they were still able to mount some attacks, with midfielder Thomas (on loan from Atletico Madrid) impressive in centre. All in all, though, compared with Barcelona's rout of Getafe the previous night, when Luis Enrique's side were 5-0 up after 40 minutes, this was a relatively dull opening half.
That was until just on the stroke of half-time, as James Rodriguez did something completely out of keeping with everything that had gone before. Almeria centre-back Angel Trujillo messed up his clearing header and the ball bounced invitingly toward Rodriguez. The Colombian international did not think twice and hit a first-time, outside-of-the-boot shot that curved unstoppably to the top corner of the net.
The opening goal had been well worth waiting for. James now has 16 goals and 13 assists in all competitions since joining Madrid for 80 million euros last summer. He has scored some crackers -- and this was maybe the best so far.
Madrid made the three points safe directly after the break, when excellent work down the wing from Toni Kroos appeared to give Ronaldo a simple sweep to the net. However, replays showed Almeria centre-back Mauro dos Santos knocked it into the net before the Portuguese could. The own goal wasn't the prettiest, but they all count, and the game was realistically settled.
The home fans had to wait until the 86th minute to cheer Madrid's third, when Alvaro Arbeloa unusually popped up just 3 yards from goal to knock in Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez's cross. That prompted a mass exodus for the exits -- the job was done here, and bigger, harder tasks lie ahead.
2. Real keep up title chase
Real Madrid might not have won many points for artistic merit on Wednesday, James' exquisite volley aside, but the three La Liga points they picked up keep them two points behind La Liga leaders Barcelona with just four games left to play.
Ancelotti was also able to rest some players ahead of a testing schedule that sees his side go to in-form Sevilla on Saturday night and then face Juventus in the Champions League semifinals, followed by a home game against in-form Valencia.
Rotations saw Keylor Navas given another easy home game in goal, with goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas getting a night off. Navas had previously played nine games for Madrid this season, and made just 18 saves in total, a sign of the type of game he typically gets to play in.
The Costa Rican got another clean sheet Wednesday -- but without once having to make any kind of stop. It looked as if visiting centre-forward Tomer Hemed might get Almeria's first shot on target of the game late on, but the Israel international slipped over as he took aim.
However, just like their backup goalkeeper, Madrid have done all that's been asked of them lately. A 3-0 win, without expending much energy, was not at all bad. Ancelotti's side has won six from six since the defeat in the Clasico at the Camp Nou in March, scoring 24 goals and conceding just four. They are still in the race, but need Barca to slip up.
James' opener also meant that for a sixth consecutive season Los Blancos have scored 100 or more goals, which is the time Ronaldo has been at the Bernabeu. In the 78 seasons before the Portuguese joined from Manchester United, that century total had been reached just once. Barca have 97 so far. With just four more games left, both teams are unlikely to catch Madrid's total of 121 when they won the title under Mourinho in 2011-12.
Ronaldo might have padded his current season total of La Liga goals, but first dos Santos and then Arbeloa getting to the ball ahead of him with the goal gaping meant he stays on 39, one ahead of Barca talisman Lionel Messi.
That Pichichi Trophy top-scorer race also appears likely to go down to the wire. Ronaldo had nine shots Wednesday, but just one on target, and he will likely see this as a missed opportunity to open a bigger lead on the Argentine.
3. What Madrid really need is Bale and Benzema back
Norwegian teen Martin Odegaard made his first Madrid senior squad Wednesday, but the 16-year-old remained on the bench the whole game, taking away what might have been a big point of interest in the game.
A youngster who did actually feature, albeit one who at this stage should be ready to make a real impact in these sort of encounters, was 20-year-old Jese Rodriguez. Jese started a rare La Liga game but had another frustrating night, with his match rustiness showing regularly.
Before Wednesday night, the zippy winger has featured in 20 different games since returning from injury in December -- getting just 479 minutes total and scoring three goals. He never looked close to adding to that total Wednesday, even though he got a rare full game on the pitch.
Chicharito's assist for the third goal aside, he also had a quiet evening. There were signs of his relationship with Ronaldo improving -- with some neat flicks and one-twos around the area. But against one of La Liga's less strong defences, the Mexico international still managed only two shots, and zero on target.
One of those, a chance at the near post after strong work from Ronaldo, should really have been dispatched to the net. All of which means that Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti needs to get injured duo Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema back for the upcoming season-defining four games in 12 days.
Bale apparently has a decent chance of returning from his calf-muscle injury for the trip to Sevilla on Saturday, while the word is that Benzema will be back from his knee problem to join his teammates at training on Sunday, the day before the squad leaves for Turin. Ronaldo would surely like to have his two fellow members of the BBC back as soon as possible.
There was no real need for Madrid to shine Wednesday night, but the time for their big stars to glitter is now arriving.
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