Jan 19, 2014, 7:14 PM EDT
Real Madrid started the new year a distant third in Spain, two draws and two losses in 17 games leaving Carlo Ancelotti’s team five points behind Barcelona and Atlético Madrid. Now, three games later, the Merengues have cut that gap to one, with Saturday’s match at Real Betis finally hinting at an ability to keep up with the competition.
Sitting in last place, the Verdiblancos wouldn’t normally be a good litmus test for a title aspirant, but with Real Madrid’s attack failing to get out of first gear since the calendar turned, Saturday’s style points were just as important as the bottom line. The team needed to prove their switch to a 4-3-3 formation could be a fruitful one, particularly after the set up failed to ignite fireworks against Espanyol and Osasuna.
On Saturday, however, those fireworks started after 10 minutes. That’s when Cristiano Ronaldo began an onslaught that would leave Real Madrid up 3-0 at halftime. Building on Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema’s goals, Ángel Di María scored just after the hour, with Álvaro Morata adding the final near full-time. For the first time since doing it back-to-back in November, los Blancos scored five times in a game, with five different goal scorers making this more than just a Ronaldo-led explosion.
On Sunday, Betis parted ways with head coach Juan Carlos Garrido, his dismissal highlighting the downward spiral being experienced in Seville. Still, this was Betis’s worst lost since visiting Atlético in late October, something that highlight’s Real Madrid’s performance. Although the Betícos have been poor, they’ve rarely been this bad. Real Madrid deserves credit for that.
The big payoff for the Merengues came on Sunday when Barcelona and Atlético were unexpectedly tripped up. Dropping points for only the fourth time this season, Spain’s two front-runners brought El Real within a point of the top, with draws to Levante and Sevilla leaving each club on 51 points for the season.
Barcelona’s result was the slightly more one surprising, and not only because Levante entered the weekend in 12th place. Held scoreless after Gerard Piqué’s 19th minute equalizer pulled back Loukas Vyntra’s opener, the defending champions couldn’t take advantage of a team that’s allowed 27 goals in 19 rounds. Despite 74 percent possession and six shots on goal, the Blaugrana were left with a 1-1 draw, leaving the door open for Atlético to claim first place.
To walk through that door, however, the Colchoneros would have to beat a Sevilla side that hasn’t lost in league since Nov. 2. After 17 minutes, however, Atlético were on their way, getting an early opener from David Villa. For the next 55 minutes, the score would remain 1-0, but after Juanfran was whistled for a foul in the penalty area, Ivan Rakitic’s ninth goal of the season brought the teams back to even footing. Despite seeing Alberto Moreno red carded in the 89th minute, Sevilla would hold on for the 1-1 draw.
Barcelona’s result tempers the impact of Atlético’s disappointment, but having known at kickoff that their title rivals dropped points, Sunday’s game became a must win for Atleti - a rare chance to gain ground on a team that rarely drops points. Instead, Atlético stayed even with Barcelona, second place on goal difference. In the process, they helped rekindle Real Madrid’s title hopes.
Elsewhere in Spain
- Málaga 0, Valencia 0 – First half opportunities settled into a second half stalemate as Bernd Schuster’s team creeped ever-closer to a relegation battle.
- Elche 2, Rayo Vallecano 0 – Raúl Baena’s 18th minute red card allowed Edu Albácar to open the scoring from the spot, with Javier Márquez providing insurance in the 79th minute.
- Granada 0, Osasuna 0 – The visitors failed to put a shot on target while Asier Riesgo kept all three Granada shots out, leaving both teams stuck in the middle of La Liga’s table.
- Espanyol 1, Celta Vigo 0 – A game short on chances was decided two minutes from time when Sergio Garcia, with the match’s only clear opportunity, found a corner to give the Catalans their seventh win of the season.
- Villarreal 2, Almeria 0 – The Yellow Submarine return to the top four on the back of goals from Ikechukuwu Uche and Bruno, the second coming from the spot in the 87th minute.
Real Betis 0, Real Madrid 5
Levante 1, Barcelona 1
Atlético Madrid 1, Sevilla 1
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