Silent night in Madrid as Christmas truce beckons

Posted by Rob Train

Angel Martinez/Real Madrid/Getty ImagesKaka made the most of a rare start under Jose Mourinho as the Brazilian scored in Real Madrid's 4-1 romp over Ajax.

There was never going to be a great deal to entice supporters to the Bernabeu to watch Real Madrid play Ajax. Real had already qualified for the knock-out stage of the competition for the 13th consecutive year and Ajax was already consigned to the Europa League, at best. The promise of a few more euros for parachuting into a tournament that faces the chop under a Uefa proposal to extend the continent's premier competition to 64 teams meant that Frank de Boer's team at least turned up in the Spanish capital with the idea of giving Real a game. Manchester City didn't bother at all, handing the slot to the Dutch outfit anyway by capitulating in Dortmund.

For the home side, this was a mere procession, albeit one tinged with the war paint that has been liberally splattered around the club in the past few days. With pressure on Jose Mourinho growing, Real was obliged to give the 60,000 or so fans who braved the cold a decent show.

And it did. For an hour, the field of play was more interesting for spectators than the recent battle of vocal chords between supporters and detractors of Mourinho. There was little of either. Perhaps in the cold light of a sub-zero Madrid, the huddled mass was content that whatever the result on the night, Real is still on track to claim the Holy Grail that will restore faith to the doubting disciples of Madridismo; it 10th European Cup. After all, what are the real alternatives to the Portuguese as things stand? Rafa Benitez will probably be on the market again before too long, and Guangzhou coach Marcelo Lippi has been mentioned. Better the devil you know, really.

And on the evidence of Tuesday's game, Real is in pretty decent shape in Europe. A side composed of regulars in Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and Sami Khedira, part-timers Luka Modric, Stephane Varane and Jose Callejon, and the lower caste of the current Bernabeu system, Kaka and Ricardo Carvalho, were more than competent to see off the Dutch challenge. One from each tier scored in a comfortable 4-1 win. Ronaldo with a tap-in, Callejon with a wonderful first and then an assured header, and Kaka in the only way he possibly could to make Mourinho lend some thought to his continued absence from the starting line-up.

Kaka's was the most curious case of the evening. Sporting the armband, the Brazilian appeared to have lost his sureness of touch in the final third. Until he belted an unstoppable left-footed shot past the despairing dive of Kenneth Vermeer; if anybody else in the team had scored that goal, he might expect to have picked himself for the next match -- Ajax in the Champions League is not Alcoyano in the King's Cup.

Kaka was the first player to be substituted, making way for the 17-year-old Jose Rodriguez, who became the youngest Real player to appear in the Champions League when he scampered on to the pitch. The fatherly ruffle of the hair Mourinho afforded the youngster must have looked odd to Kaka, who has been cast aside like an illegitimate son. He is not the player he once was, but surely it is time for the Brazilian to seek pastures new in a bid to play at his home World Cup in 2014. There will be no shortage of takers for a man clearly not rated by his current club.

But this was a game for the new blood. Antonio Adan was composed in goal and justified Mourinho's decision not to enter the transfer market for some competition to keep Iker Casillas on his toes. Nacho, who started on the right of defense, proved his versatility by switching to the left when Fabio Coentrao was forced off through injury. Modric, who has not yet muscled his way into a regular starting spot -- in as much as someone of the Croatian's size can -- made his case for a more pronounced role with a refined display. His intervention in Real's opener, ignoring the offside Ronaldo to tee up Benzema to cross for the Portuguese to slot home was beautifully intuitive. The midfielder's slotted ball to Callejon, who finished with aplomb, was a work of art.

As an aside, Adan has ensured himself a place in Trivial Pursuits of years to come after acquiring the captain's armband when Kaka was substituted, only to hand it to Pepe a couple of minutes later as an apoplectic Mourinho raged on the touchline. It won't be the last heard of the incident. Conspiracy theorists are drawn to Real like Mulder and Scully to rooms with no light switch.

Callejon: As Nick Rigg wrote recently, the prodigal son, farmed out to Espanyol and bought back, is perhaps the fringe player pushing hardest to dislodge a firm Mourinho favorite from the starting 11. The emergence of the 25-year-old has coincided with a decline in the effectiveness of Angel di Maria and the bench-warming Argentinean will have shifted uncomfortably in his padded seat while observing arguably Callejon's best game in a Real shirt.

All told, it was a quiet night at the Bernabeu in recent context. The crowd was subdued for most of the match, and as soporific as its team for the final half hour. 'Canteranos' Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata joined the fray once the game was already over and Mourinho, and his employers, were able to kick back with an eye on the draw for the next round before a ball was kicked.

What Real does know after Tuesday's games is that Paris St. Germain could stand in the way -- possibly with David Beckham popping balls on to the head of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a large enough target. Schalke 04 also topped its group and could be drawn against Real. Wednesday's games will complete the scenario Mourinho faces on December 20th. Until then, relative peace and goodwill unto men -- unless you cost the club 65 million euros apparently -- will reign over the Bernabeu.

ESPN Conversations