Casillas back by default in drama-packed win
Well that was a nice, quiet return to La Liga action for Real Madrid, wasn't it? Just seven goals, two red cards, one penalty, one hat trick and 41 attempts on goal at the Bernabeu as Los Blancos welcomed Real Sociedad to the Spanish captital for Jornada 18. A steady, run-of-the-mill return from the winter break it was not, but at least Jose Mourinho and his men returned with three points against the Basques in a 4-3 victory, thus setting the tone for what Madridistas hope will be a much-improved second half to the season.
In truth, the headlines were always going to come before the match. Would Iker Casillas return to the starting eleven or would Antonio Adan remain in goal? Rarely has a team sheet been so keenly awaited. Madrid sports papers AS and Marca both had differing views, with the former saying Casillas would start and the latter going with Adan. Marca was correct.
When the starting lineups were announced, the Madrid faithful did not boo Adan, but the, shall we say, respectful applause did not exactly compare to the cheers Casillas received when the substitutes were read. The reaction to Mourinho was of the booing nature - the supporters had made their feelings clear.
It almost left you wondering where the pre-match script had been left in the Madrid offices, then, when Adan saw red just six minutes into the match and Casillas came on to try - and fail - to save a penalty that would see the visitors level the score. Karim Benzema had already given the hosts the perfect start with a goal inside 90 seconds. There was little time to catch your breath.
Benzema's opener was nicely taken, with Sami Khedira - arguably Madrid's man-of-the-match - laying on a neat ball for the Frenchman to fire a low effort into the back of the net. Problems? What problems? Fast-forward four minutes and Adan fires a needless stray ball straight into the path of Carlos Vela before going on to haul the former Arsenal man down inside the box. Penalty, red card - a harsh one, given Xabi Alonso was seemingly covering Adan on the line, but rules are rules. Oh, those problems.
Mourinho was now faced with the dilemma of calling for a goalkeeper he'd dropped for technical reasons to save his bacon. Los Blancos were down to ten men and leading 1-0. Casillas couldn't do it and Prieto slotted home the penalty - the first goal of his hat trick.
It takes a cynical mind to think Mourinho did not want Saint Iker to save the spot-kick but you couldn't help but think the way the match panned out - and certainly helped his post-match press conference. If Casillas saved the penalty and went on to produce a storming performance, the Spanish media would have had a field day with Mourinho.
As it was, Casillas almost justified Mourinho's dropping of him by giving away the ball in kamikaze fashion with his first touch and almost allowing Sociedad a second but the ball flew into the side netting. A let-off. In the Spanish No. 1's defence, he wouldn't have expected to be involved so early in the match, if at all, and it was painstakingly obvious his mind wasn't right early on. He wasn't at fault for any of the goals but looked far from comfortable from set-pieces in the opening stages - something a makeshift Madrid defence wouldn't have helped him with.
At the other end of the spectrum, Cristiano Ronaldo, sporting a good tan following the winter break, started the year in splendid fashion. Not only did the Portuguese score twice but he seemed to enjoy both goals - sporting a smile for the first goal and going pretty barmy by Ronaldo's standards after the second, hugging Mourinho to show his support for the boss. He even tracked back on a few occasions, picking up a yellow card for one offence - which rules him out of next weekend's league clash with Osasuna.
Ronaldo was captain for the day with Casillas initially benched and Sergio Ramos suspended. He offered the armband to Casillas when he came on, but the stopper turned it down. Players cannot swap the captaincy mid-match anyway, unless substituted, but it was a nice gesture nevertheless. Was the armband what Cristiano needed to enjoy his football? To be the top man, if others didn't think so already - an armband to prove it? We'll probably see it returned to Casillas next time out, or to vice-captain Ramos, but captain Cristiano in the future? Who knows?
Madrid were not fantastic against Sociedad but it would be harsh to focus on the negatives , especially for playing with ten men for 84 minutes. Sociedad's defence may not be the best in La Liga but they came into the game in good form, unbeaten in seven including wins at Malaga and Valencia. It was never going to be a walk in the park for a Madrid side seemingly in turmoil off the pitch and who went into the game having lost their final two matches of 2012. It was never going to be a walk in the park for a Madrid defence missing five players. Ramos's suspension followed injury set-backs to Pepe, Raul Albiol, Marcelo and Fabio Coentrao. Ricardo Carvalho was playing his first Liga match of the season.
Khedira was a rock in midfield. Not only a rock at stopping the opposition's play, winning the ball and getting his side back on the attack, but actualy impressive in the attack, too. The German has shown signs of his attacking abilities already this season and was superb for Madrid when they went down to ten men, pushing forward to help plug that gap left in the attack when Madrid sacrificed Jose Callejon for Casillas. A real box-to-box midfield, rather than a sitting defensive midfielder. To cap off his performance he provided an assist, a goal, and was vital in Ronaldo's first goal, too.
But spare a thought for Callejon. I've been an admirer of the former Espanyol for his work-rate and teamwork throughout this season and have been calling for him to get more starts. He finally gets a rare start and is forced off after six minutes. Just his luck. On the positive side, Gonzalo Higuain made a welcome return and came a lick of paint away from scoring when he hit the bar - his return will be a real boost for Los Blancos.
This was a whirlwind return to action for Madrid and it's hard to really know what to take from it given the drama that unfolded from the first minute until the last. Mourinho will no doubt be keen to focus on the positives. A victory to start 2013, and an entertaining one at that. The return to La Liga may have been important for Madrid but the real big one comes in midweek when Celta Vigo visit the Bernabeu looking to defend their 2-1 lead in the Copa del Rey and deny Los Blancos from winning another piece of silverware this season.