Motivation. It has been a key word throughout this season at Real Madrid, with Jose Mourinho regularly accusing his players of lacking sufficient stores of the stuff. After the highs of two important victories in the Copa del Rey semifinals and the Champions League, punctuated by a morale-boosting but largely irrelevant win over rampant league leader Barcelona, Mourinho may have been wondering how his charges would react Sunday in the far-flung province of Vigo at Celta's Balaidos Stadium.
-- Match report: Celta Vigo 1-2 Real Madrid
The answer was unequivocal in Real's 2-1 victory. The exhortation of Madrid president Florentino Perez to "defend Madridismo and fight to the end” of the league campaign might not be the kind of rallying cry to spur exorbitantly paid players to feats of brilliance in a league campaign as dead as the 'Zidanes y Pavones' experiment of the construction magnate's first tenure -- but a first-team place with silverware up for grabs certainly is.
Diego Lopez was the epitome of the scrappiness of a team with bigger fish to fry than those on offer on the Galician coast on Sunday. Lopez has been so effective in the absence of Iker Casillas that if Mourinho's reasoning for dropping the Real captain was genuinely concern over his form, the World Cup-winner may have a battle on his hands to regain his place.
Exceptional against Manchester United, Lopez again pulled out his A-game to keep Celta at bay in an opening 10 minutes that suggested Celta's players had not paid much attention to coach Abel Resino's cautious 4-1-4-1 formation. As early as the first minute the Real keeper was forced into a save at the feet of Iago Aspas, the conduit for all of Celta’s attacking play this season and the source of most of its goals.
In a spirited opening spell Lopez was called on to repel several chances, not least when Pepe, being handed a start in place of the now-first-choice Raphael Varane, lost sight of a corner to allow Aspas in. At the other end, Celta stopper Javi Varas was equally occupied, at least after Real had managed to figure out an offside system that claimed seven victims in the first 20 minutes.
Lopez fluffed his lines in the second half with a fumble that Raul Albiol had to clean up, and bad positioning that almost allowed Park Chu-Young to score, but he is proving far from a mere understudy to Casillas.
As always, it was the man who needs no motivation other than to see his name on the score sheet – and his pursuit of Lionel Messi in the Pichichi Trophy stakes -- who broke the deadlock; although his shirt number was double-checked by many when he laid off to Karim Benzema when a shot on goal seemed easier in the first half. In the right place at the right time to benefit from a kindly dropping deflection from José Callejón’s drive, Cristiano Ronaldo turned in on 61 minutes to take his domestic tally to 25.
When Celta's deserved goal did come, there was little either Lopez or Pepe could do about it, Aspas' shot taking a wicked deflection off the Portuguese and looping past the wrong-footed keeper.
Motivation is certainly not lacking in Celta's ranks, with the specter of relegation straight back to the long sleep of the Segunda Division beckoning more vividly every week. The light at the end of the tunnel seemed a little further away after Aspas’ intervention. But another man with a point to prove, Kaka, earned the penalty that Ronaldo would convert to seal victory and move to 26 for the season.
The Brazilian, first off the bench against United midweek and again called on in Vigo, is finally playing his way into Mourinho's reckoning as the end of the season approaches. Luka Modric, meanwhile, continues to play his frustrating one-game-good, one-game-bad routine and was largely anonymous throughout. Benzema, stung by his omission against United, tormented Celta's back line and was unlucky not to find himself among the scorers. His replacement, Gonzalo Higuain, returned the favor by missing a sitter late on.
With little left to play for in La Liga, except the obligation to deny Atletico local bragging rights, Real's cup runs are keeping Mourinho’s men firmly on their toes. What Perez and the Portuguese must be wondering in private is where that will to win was during the team's five losses and four ties that saw the title slip away in the first place. The job the stick failed to do has been achieved by the carrot.
As Sir Alex said ahead of his side’s FA Cup semifinal against Chelsea: “We’re still on for a league and cup double, and if we can achieve that it won’t be such a bad season.”
A cup double in Madrid will be considerably more welcome, and league matches are exactly the proving ground the players will use to make sure their names are on the team sheet for the juicier encounters to come.