LA LIGA

Cristiano steals the show

Another derby goes Real’s way as Atlético forgets its game plan

Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick in Real Madrid's 1-4 win over Atlético.
Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick in Real Madrid's 1-4 win over Atlético.BALLESTEROS (EFE)

If you filter out the roars as the two soccer halves of Madrid bayed for each other´s blood, there was something of a silent comedy about it. Atlético Madrid was the Buster Keaton, going through an inordinate number of maneuvers, almost all of which failed, to win the favor of his heart’s desire: for the team a victory over its city rival; for Buster this could be to win the attentions of a bathing beauty. The approach play was there, but it was often more elaborate than penetrating or effective, and typically ended by a bruising Pepe challenge or a dismissive clearance by Sergio Ramos.

Then along came the beach heartthrob and simply carried off our heroine with brute force.

No one could argue that Cristiano Ronaldo is anything but a larger-than-life character. He doesn’t seem to mind the insults raining down on him as he goes through his punctilious pre-free-kick routine, like a strutting peacock in mid-courtship ritual. In fact, one suspects that he will only fret the day crowds regard him in indifferent silence.

Before the 25thminute of Wednesday night’s Madrid derby, neither team had managed to create a serious opportunity to score (with the possible exception of Radamel Falcao’s deflected shot, saved by Iker Casillas) as Atlético understandably focused on stretching out its periods of possession to frustrate Real’s preference for an end-to-end punching match. The foul on Karim Benzema was a long way outside the Atlético area; the wall cleared by Ronaldo’s swerving, dipping shot was a full five yards in front of the box, so was it keeper Thibaut Courtois’ mess-up or Cristiano’s merit? The Belgian, rooted to the spot as the ball entered the net at the foot of his left post, is hardly the first goalkeeper to be made to look a fool by the Portuguese, and minutes later he made some amends with a save from Ronaldo after a rare foray toward goal by Kaká, who was substituted by the also strangely muted Mesut Özil at half time.

Goals are more important than ideas; we weren't patient," said Simeone

But that was coach Diego Simeone’s plan in action: choke the central midfield areas and force Madrid to find a more circuitous route toward goal. Time and again Xabi Alonso switched play from one wing to the other in an attempt to tire the home defense, but Atlético reached half time pretty much intact and unfortunate to be behind. “Goals are more important than ideas,” Simeone said of the Cristiano effect after the match. The atmosphere in the grubby environs of the Vicente Calderón stadium during the interval was one of grim resignation.

Ten minutes after the break, Atlético’s three best players combined to give the home crowd hope. Playmaker Diego worked space for Adrián on the left; the languid forward turned the ball onto his right foot to deliver a magnificent cross, met by the formidable forehead of Falcao. Now it was Casillas’ turn to be flatfooted and the idea flickered through 45,000 minds that the end of 13 years of ignominy without a Liga win against Real could be a half-hour away.

Perhaps though, that emotion was felt too deeply by the Atlético players, who plunged into attack mode, despite the well-known danger a stand-up fight with this fast-countering Real team inevitably involves. Where Valencia frustrated José Mourinho’s team in the Bernabéu last weekend (0-0) and ended up having chances to win as Real made a desperate bid to maintain its cushion over Barcelona, Atlético allowed the field to break in two.

“I think that after the equalizer we lost the ball. In the first half and the first 15 minutes of the second, the team played a good match, following the idea we had set out. We weren’t patient,” Simeone said.

Ronaldo took it upon himself to restore Real’s lead, testing Courtois from a tight angle before unleashing another vicious dipper from outside the area. Diego Godín senselessly upended Gonzalo Higuaín (who had replaced Karim Benzema) to give Ronaldo the chance for a hat-trick from the penalty spot. He didn’t think twice and his 40thleague goal of the season sealed another night of frustration for Atlético fans. Ronaldo’s pass let in José María Callejón, who summed up Courtois’ night with a shot between the keeper’s legs: 1-4, Ronaldo’s derby.

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