Real Madrid’s 3-2 defeat to Málaga in its last game before the winter break signaled rather more than the simple loss of three points. Not only did it mean that the gap between itself and Barcelona stretches to a surely unassailable 16 points — only one fewer than the one separating it from the relegation zone — but it also demonstrated that the rift in the locker room seems to be reaching similarly insurmountable proportions.
On Saturday night at Málaga’s La Rosaleda stadium, José Mourinho offered the most extreme test so far of his absolute sovereignty at the club by relegating captain Iker Casillas to the bench in favor of second-choice keeper Antonio Adán.
Keeping control of the dressing room has become the Portuguese coach’s main obsession and, on the hunt for the tattletales and black sheep, this week pointed his fingers at Spain’s World Cup-winning captain, who just under a month ago went out of his way to state in public that his coach was not being fairly treated by fans and the media.
In my opinion, Adán is in better condition than Casillas"
“It is a technical decision,” was how Mourinho played down the move after the match. “The coach analyzes the situation, sees the players and chooses his team. I listen to my aides and in my opinion, which is the one that counts, Adán is in better condition than Casillas.”
To begin with, the loss of its legendary captain — the second safest pair of hands ever in Liga history — didn’t seem to be unduly unsteadying the Real ship. Ronaldo’s rocket of a free kick, denied by a spectacular save from Willy Caballero, marked the prelude to a decent first-half performance by the visitor, where the only thing missing was a goal.
That finally came at the start of the second half, but from Málaga. Isco, who before the match had been presented with the Golden Boy award as the best young soccer player of 2012 in Europe, beat Adán with a perfect strike to set up a much more balanced second half.
Real drew level after Sergio Sánchez managed to find his own net during a goalmouth scramble, but was no longer the team it was at the start and Roque Santa Cruz scored twice in quick succession. Mourinho threw on José María Callejón, Kaká and Luka Modric in response and Karim Benzema clawed one back, but Manuel Pellegrini’s players held on to the whistle.
Buoyed by the news before the game of Tito Vilanova’s release from hospital after undergoing cancer surgery on Thursday, Barcelona did its absent coach proud earlier on Saturday by cruising to a straightforward 3-1 victory at Valladolid. Xavi opened the scoring, before Leo Messi made it two with his 91st of 2012. Javi Sánchez got one back with two minutes to go but substitute Cristian Tello netted a third for the Catalans in stoppage time.
Other results: Athletic 0-2 Zaragoza; Betis 1-2 Mallorca; Osasuna 1-2 Granada; R. Vallecano 3-0 Levante; Espanyol 2-0 Deportivo; R. Sociedad 2-1 Sevilla; Valencia 4-2 Getafe; At. Madrid 1-0 Celta.