A Real Snoozefest (Xativa 0-0 Real Madrid)
Olimpic de Xativa 0-0 Real Madrid
La Murta Stadium, Xativa
Real Madrid traveled to the province of Valencia to take on 3rd division side Xativa in a game that was never going to be a spectacle. When the draw was made, Xativa’s fans would’ve been aware that they wouldn’t see many of Real Madrid’s stars due to Ronaldo’s suspension, Bale being due a rest and the fact that it was a 1st leg, and Real Madrid would use it as an opportunity to rest their big guns.
However, the home fans still enjoyed seeing some legends of Spanish football like Casillas and Ramos as well as Spain’s next big thing Isco, who would provide for me the most notable moment of the game barring Angel Di Maria’s scowl (more on both those later).
They also went home proud of their team for their fighting performance and an excellent 0-0 result against a second-string Real Madrid that lacked imagination and drive, with nobody able to step up and help the team get a victory. While the 2nd leg at the Bernabeu is still to come, it is quite certain to end in a Real Madrid victory so most of the Xativa players will look back at this game as having provided the proudest result of their playing careers.
It’s part of what makes the Copa del Rey a beautiful competition – mythical Real Madrid going to a small town to play in a tiny stadium in front of a team of humble lower-division players who eventually got the memorable result their performance merited . There only seemed to be a couple dozen rows of seats behind the goals, with tall netting mounted to prevent skied balls from bouncing into the kitchens and living rooms of locals living around the stadium.
There are two reasons why I’m starting off on a poetic note and going all football-romantic on you folks today. Reason One is because I’ve been reading Sid Lowe’s book “Fear and Loathing in La Liga”, which sheds new light on the history of the relationship between Real Madrid and Barca and how this dynamic interacted with seminal events and personalities in 20th century Spain. It’s painstakingly researched book with a treasure trove of interviews and second-hand accounts. The book has helped me realize the immaturity and oversimplification of contemporary discussions on the Madrid-Barca rivalry, and has helped me appreciate the beauty of Spain’s unique football culture.
Reason Two is the fact that the game was a veritable snooze-fest, particularly in the 1st half.
Real Madrid started with a reasonably experienced defensive setup with Casillas in goal, Ramos and Nacho in the middle and Arbeloa and Carvajal on the left and right defensive flanks respectively. Illarramendi and Casemiro manned the central midfield with Isco floating around in front of them. Di Maria didn’t play his classic right-flank position but rather drifted in centrally a lot of the time. Jese took up a position similar to Ronaldo’s on the left side of the attacking third, with Morata playing centre-forward. This meant Real started with 7 homegrown players if you include Casemiro, and 9 Spanish players. It had been 9 years since Real Madrid last started with 9 Spaniards in the lineup.
One of the only two foreign players in the lineup Di Maria would have hoped to impress in this game against modest opposition, given the fact that he has seen a lot of bench-time lately due to Bale’s impressive performances. However, El Fideo was unable to make the most of the opportunity, messing up several passes and regularly gifting the ball to the opposition. His dribbling prowess didn’t do him much good in the centre of the pitch. He also wasn’t helped by his teammates’ sleepy performances.
Plenty of credit is also due to the Xativa players, who did very well in closing down spaces and maintaining shape, never allowing Real Madrid easy access to the attacking third. It needs to be reiterated that Xativa were combative and hardworking but never dirty.
Their job was made a bit easier by the fact that Madrid’s players struggled to find each other even when in space, and when they did find each other, they were unable to make anything happen. Xativa enjoyed more of the ball in the opening quarter of an hour as Real Madrid were unable to breach the final third.
The only Real Madrid player who interested me was Illarramendi, not because he put in a great performance but simply because with each game he is starting to look more and more like Xabi Alonso in his gait and his movements on the ball. One of my favourite Madridista bloggers Una Madridista will no doubt be pleased that once Xabi’s gone, we’ll have a new “poser” in the team (regular readers of her blog will understand this reference).
As soon as the whistle blew for half-time, Ancelotti send Marcelo out on to the pitch to warm up. Some energy and sunshine were sorely needed out there, and Marcelo was a good pick to help provide it.
Sure enough, Real Madrid were more lively in the 2nd half and enjoyed plenty of ball possession early on, often on the left with Marcelo combining with Isco and Jese.
The 56th minute provided probably the best chance of the game, when a fine weighted ball from Di Maria found Isco in the box. However Isco decided to try and go disco by controlling the ball and scooping it over the goalkeeper when a simple first-time side-footed shot might have been more prudent.
Right after his best contribution to the game, Di Maria was hauled off for Benzema. The Argentine seemed to be fuming as he went off and appeared to give Ancelotti a death stare before disappearing into the dressing room. Ancelotti claimed after the game that Di Maria complained of pain in his thigh at half-time, and that he knew that he would soon be replaced by Benzema. I’m a bit skeptical of this explanation however simply because of Di Maria’s body language upon being subbed off.
Benzema’s entry improved our link-up play in and around the Xativa box and allowed Morata to rove into more classic target man positions.
Madrid’s second good goalscoring chance came in the 61st minute, with Isco’s deflecting shot drawing a diving save from the Xativa custodian, who would have expected a busier game than he ultimately had.
Then soon after, Isco provided a sequence of play that summed up his entire skill-set. He first showed good pace and intent to race onto a loose ball before the advancing defender, before slowing down his charge wonderfully and dancing around the player and wriggling past a couple more helpless Xativa players with breathtaking technique, before using his wonderful vision to provide a stunning diagonal ball to Morata. It was a jaw-dropping play that deserved a better finish from Morata, who skewed his shot wide when he should have at the very least troubled the goalkeeper. It was a fairly forgettable performance from our young talent who has recently been linked to a loan move abroad.
Ancelotti then used his final substitution by introducing Modric. I was expecting the disappointing Casemiro to come off but Ancelotti chose to withdraw Isco instead, perhaps thinking of games to come.
With the subs on the field and Real Madrid looking increasingly threatening, I could smell a goal coming as I expected Xativa’s players to begin to tire. However this didn’t really happen as their own subs’ fresh legs meant the pressing never stopped.
Real Madrid’s performance was summed up in the 91st minute by Sergio Ramos, who chose to go for glory when he really should have crossed toward the far post where Modric had assumed a very good goal-scoring position. Ramos’ shot went embarrassingly wide, and that was it.
The 2nd leg will be played at the Bernabeu on December 18. Expect our big guns to start the game and take the result away from Xativa early on. Real Madrid’s next game proper is this Tuesday away to FC Copenhagen in the Champions League.