Real Madrid went two points clear at the top of the La Liga after a close-fought 2-1 win over Real Betis after arch-rivals Barcelona slumped to a shock 1-2 defeat at Deportivo on a thrilling Sunday in Spain’s top flight.
Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema were the two big guns that were rested for Sunday’s home game as Los Blancos trotted out in what seemed like a 4-4-2 formation with Cristiano Ronaldo and Alvaro Morata playing as centre forwards.
After a thrilling but energy-sapping win at Napoli in the UEFA Champions League in midweek, it was understandable that Zinedine Zidane’s men would be a tad sluggish in the opening exchanges.
Betis gave a good account of themselves early on, but the manner in which they broke the deadlock surprised even their bench and sparked disbelief among the home crowd.
Ruben Castro sent in a low cross from the left for strike-partner Antonio Sanabria and while the Paraguayan forward connected cleanly with his sidefoot, the ball went straight to Keylor Navas who looked to make a routine save. Yet, somehow the ball managed to wriggle out of his grasp to give the visitors a shock early lead in the 25th minute.
Madrid were stunned and while their confidence took a major hit after their goalkeeper’s blunder, they started to control proceedings without really threatening the Betis goal, a fact which worried Zidane on the touchline and the vast majority of the Santiago Bernabeu.
Going into the interval with a deficit would have been difficult to comeback from and as Los Blancos amped up the pressure, the familiar combination of Marcelo-Cristiano Ronaldo struck five minutes from half time. The Brazilian sent in an inviting cross from the left flank and as Morata’s run to the first post distracted the Betis defenders, the Portuguese sensation was left unmarked and he calmly headed home to score an equaliser to put the momentum firmly in the hosts’ favour.
Post the break, much of the game was spent in the Betis half but to no avail as Madrid looked sluggish in attack. Morata, in particular, was ineffective on a rare start and Zidane sent in Lucas Vazquez and Karim Benzema to inject some pace into the attack in the latter stages of the second half.
A goal from open-play looked unlikely as the visitors were desperately hanging on for a draw, but Sergio Ramos broke Betis hearts with a 80th minute header from a Toni Kroos corner. The Madrid captain had scored a vital goal in the Napoli win as well and the list of ‘crunch’ goals he has scored seems to be getting lengthier by the minute.
Earlier in the day, Barcelona seemed to be stuck in hangover mode after their monumental UEFA Champions League triumph over Paris Saint-Germain in midweek, deservedly beaten by a plucky Deportivo La Coruna side.
Neymar, Ivan Rakitic were among the standout names rested for the trip to Deportivo, with Arda Turan and Denis Suarez afforded rare starts in their absence.
While the mercurial Brazilian Neymar was absent, Lionel Messi and Suarez were present and Barcelona had enough firepower on paper to come away from the Riazor Stadium with an away win to temporarily extend their lead at the top of the La Liga standings.
Instead, they were to cede top spot as thanks as strikes from Joselu and Alex Garcia sandwiched a Luis Suarez equaliser.
The home side deservedly took the lead after enjoying a good spell in which they had tested Barcelona keeper Marc Andre Ter Stegen on numerous occasions via a scrappy 40th minute goal from forward Joselu. A corner from right had not been dealt with and as Javier Mascherano’s touch went back to Ter Stegen, the German fumbled the ball and allowed Joselu to tap home from inside six yards.
Going into the interval with 1-0 deficit, Barcelona knew they were up against it and needed to score early on in the second half if they were to come away with a win.
And they did exactly that, with Luis Suarez notching his 20th league goal of the season, finishing well from inside the box in the first minute of the second half.
However, Barcelona were unable to build on Suarez’s strike and looked stuck in second gear as their attacks fizzled out into nothing. With Messi having one of his rare off days, it was looking more and more likely that Barca would concede and they did, off a corner for the second time on the night.
And Deportivo’s defensive midfielder rose highest from an Emre Colak corner to score the winner in the 74th minute, leaving Barcelona’s hopes of winning a third La Liga title in as many years for Luis Enrique in tatters.
While Madrid have a lead of only two points, they have a game in hand and while the title race will go down to the wire, the momentum is now firmly in the capital club’s favour.