There will be a white Christmas in Spain as Julio Baptista’s goal gave Real Madrid a 0-1 victory over arch-rivals Barcelona at Camp Nou to give Madrid a seven point lead at the top of La Liga going into the winter break. Madrid dominated the game from start to finish and Barça were perhaps a bit lucky not to be on the end of a bigger defeat.
The game was played with the normal pace and intensity expected in these games but chances were few and far between. Madrid were the first to threaten after 12 minutes when Pepe got between the Barça defenders at a free kick from Sneijder, but his header was saved by Valdes.
Barça were finding it impossible to penetrate the Madrid defence and the Camp Nou faithful had to wait until the 29th minute for their first sniff of goal. Iniesta who had started on the right wing in place of the injured Messi, began to drift infield in search of the ball; finding himself in a more natural inside left position he sent a through ball for Eto’o to chase, Casillas raced out to dive at Eto’o’s feet and the ball broke to Iniesta following up on the left of the area, Casillas was quick to recover and again threw himself at Iniesta’s feet, the Barça fans screamed for a penalty but it was more from frustration than anything.
This was the only period of the game when Barça looked like they might take control. On 33 minutes Iniesta got past left-back Heinze and crossed from the right, the ball went low across the goal and found Ronaldinho running in at the far post but his side-footed shot was well saved by Casillas diving low to his left. This turned out to be Barça’s best effort of the game and they would regret not taking it as two minutes later Madrid went ahead.
Raul found Baptista who played a sensational one-two with Van Nistlerooy which destroyed the Barça defence, Baptista received the return and sent a cracking right foot shot high into the net which gave Valdes no chance. After the goal Barça were guilty of rushing their normally patient game, and this played into the visitors’ hands. Just before half time Madrid nearly made it two as they broke away after a Barça corner, Robinho forcing Valdes to another diving save.
In the second half Barça only tested Casillas from outside the area and the goalkeeper dealt comfortably with everything that came his way. Baptista and Diarra won the day over Xavi and Deco, and Frank Rijkaard replaced Deco with Giovani dos Santos after 57 minutes, moving Iniesta back into midfield.
Madrid continued to look dangerous on the break, chances fell to Van Nistlerooy, Baptista, Robinho, Ramos and Raul but they couldn’t find the killer second goal. Barça nearly made them pay the price as they threw everything forward in the last 15 minutes, Toure had two efforts wide from corners, and Iniesta and Bojan both forced saves with shots from distance, then in the 88th minute Eto’o fired a shot through a crowded penalty area but the ball hit Pepe and not the net.
In injury time Madrid came close again when Van Nistlerooy and Abidal went for the same ball and between them produced a lob over Valdes that the barça keeper managed to get back to and save on the line.
Madrid were worthy winners as their game was much more disciplined than Barça’s. Raul and Van Nistlerooy worked their socks off to get back and support the midfield, Van Nistlerooy even twice turning up in the right-back position to defend against the overlapping Abidal. Baptista was immense in midfield and he was supported well by Sneijder and Diarra. The defence was also superb, but a special mention should go to Pepe who completed an almost perfect game at centre-half.
While Madrid will be enjoying their holiday break, it will be a miserable Christmas for Barça. All the old wounds will be opened and the futures of Ronaldinho and Frank Rijkaard will again be seriously questioned. Rijkaard spent the week before the game trying to fool the press and Madrid as to his plans for Barça’s starting lineup; Deco and Ronaldinho were both left out of a theoretical first team eleven during a training match on Thursday, but rather than confuse his opponent Rijkaard only succeeded in confusing his own team.
Gudjohnsen was left out despite playing very well in the two previous games in favour of Deco who hasn’t played a full game since returning from injury. Ronaldinho continues to disappoint yet was chosen, while in Madrid coach Bernd Schuster had no problem to leave Madrid’s prima donna Guti on the bench.
The other big game this weekend was won by Espanyol who restored some pride to the city of Barcelona by beating Atletico Madrid 1-2 in the Calderon. Espanyol now move above Atletico into third place, one point behind Barça. Simao gave Atletico the lead in the first half but second half goals from Tamudo and Luis Garcia turned the game around, Espanyol were helped by Atletico having Aguero and Pernia sent off.
The other big news this week is the revolution occuring at Valencia. Ronald Koeman has decided enough is enough and has told veteran goalkeeper Santi Cañizares, captain David Albelda and forward Miguel Angel Angulo that he doesn’t need them. Star striker David Villa has threatened to leave the club out of solidarity with his teammates, expect to see Europe’s biggest clubs queueing up to sign him. The response from the team this weekend was to concede two early goals at Zaragoza, then early in the second half Koeman got himself sent off from the touchline. Perhaps it was the absense of the Dutchman that lead to Valencia’s comeback, as two goals in the last 15 minutes won them a draw.
The other games this weekend ended as follows:
Athletic Bilbao 1 Murcia 1
Villareal 1 Recreativo 1
Levante 0 Deportivo 1
Osasuna 3 Malloca 1
Valladolid 0 Betis 0
Almeria 0 Getafe 2
Sevilla 4 Racing 1