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May 7, 2014

Night to forget as Valladolid edge Blancos out of La Liga title race

The FC crew discusses the shake-up in the La Liga title race.

They were dancing in the streets of the Spanish capital when the final whistle blew on Real Madrid’s penultimate away match of the season at relegation-threatened Real Valladolid on Wednesday night. Those dancing were clad in red and white, however, and not the famous all-white after Los Blancos all-but threw away their hopes of reclaiming La Liga after dropping two more points at the New Zorrilla.

Humberto Osorio’s late header gave Valladolid, themselves desperate for points to ensure they remain in the top flight, a hard-fought point in a 1-1 draw that has dented the title aspirations of Carlo Ancelotti’s side and put neighbours Atleti in the driving seat for a first title since 1996. The bars of Madrid were packed with fans of both capital clubs but it was Atleti’s long-suffering fans that had cause for celebration with the result meaning a title decider at the Camp Nou against Barcelona on the final day of the season is now the most likely scenario.

Defeat has left Los Blancos four points adrift of Diego Simeone’s leaders with just two games to go, meaning Los Colchoneros must now drop five points from a possible six to allow their more illustrious neighbours back into the race owing to their superior head-to-head record. While Madridistas had acknowledged they may well have to support their Catalan arch-rivals on the final day for a helping hand in the title race, it now looks like a straight shootout between Tata Martino’s side and Atleti for the top domestic honour.

Much like the Champions League quarterfinal defeat at Borussia Dortmund -- which Madrid still came through thanks to their 3-0 win in the first leg -- the cameras panned to an anxious Cristiano Ronaldo on the sidelines throughout as Los Blancos failed to kill their hosts off. The Portuguese had limped off as early as the eighth minute with a hamstring injury, one which initial reports suggest will not be cause for concern ahead of the Champions League final, and he was helpless as his side trudged along for 85 minutes, after another goal from Sergio Ramos, before suffering the killer blow.

The former Manchester United man’s injury was a sign of things to come for a Madrid side that has struggled since their famous 4-0 victory over holders Bayern Munich in the Champions League a fortnight ago. Then, Ancelotti’s side had been muted as potential treble winners having already secured the Copa del Rey, but two draws from as many winnable La Liga games have left Madrid focusing on the double.

Los Blancos were sluggish in a 2-2 draw against Valencia at the Bernabeu on Sunday and much the same can be said of their showing against Juan Ignacio Martínez’s men. At the weekend they were let off the hook owing to an unexpected defeat for Atleti at Levante, a draw for Barca against Getafe and a last-minute wonder goal from Ronaldo to give his side a share of the spoils and keep them firmly in the title race. This time it was their game in-hand. A must-win in every sense of the expression.

Valladolid are battling for their lives at the wrong end of the table and Ancelotti will have expected stubborn opposition. The lack of Gareth Bale and Dani Carvajal, both absent through niggling injuries, as well as the early exit of Ronaldo, were telling as the match progressed with the hosts leaving plenty of space for their visitors to counter but with Angel Di Maria and Alvaro Morata penetrating the wings and not Bale and Ronaldo, Ancelotti’s men were not quite as punishing as normal.

At the other end, Iker Casillas, making a return to La Liga action for the first time since a 5-0 win at Valencia in January 2013 (a total of 472 days) was rarely troubled. Diego Lopez is the usual starter in the league but Ancelotti wanted to give the Spain No. 1 more match time ahead of the Champions League final and included him from the start. Casillas did little wrong, he had little to do wrong, but he could not thwart Osorio’s winning header five minutes from time.

Ancelotti has found praise from the Madrid press in his first season at the Bernabeu but he could be in line for some intense questioning in Thursday morning’s papers. The Italian opted to go for the more defensive-minded Asier Illarramendi, who hardly shone in Sunday’s game against Valencia, and Marcelo, in place of striker Karim Benzema and Isco in an attempt to close the game out instead of rubber-stamp it, and it backfired.

The Madrid boss will also have some injury concerns not just for La Liga’s run-in but ahead of their quest for La Decima in Portugal on Saturday, May 24. Pepe, sporting an interesting new haircut for the occasion, ended the game as an injury concern while Ancelotti also told reporters post-match that Di Maria has “a big problem.” Despite fears over his Madrid future following the signing of Bale earlier in the season, the Argentine has been one of the team’s biggest players this season and his absence in Lisbon would be huge, especially with Xabi Alonso also set to miss out through suspension.

The only relief at the end of a terrible 90 minutes for Los Blancos was the news that Ronaldo’s injury is not as bad as many will have feared when he left the pitch early on. His withdrawal seemed a precaution, with Ancelotti saying he “wasn’t comfortable”, and his seat on the plane to Lisbon should not be in jeopardy. His and his team’s high levels of confidence following that stunning win at the Allianz Arena will be.

Defender Ramos also showcased his goal threat with a stunning free-kick that left Ronaldo applauding on the sidelines. The Spain international has been in fine form in front of goal in recent matches, scoring five in his last four games in all competitions, and his latest one was the best of the lot. With Bale absent and Ronaldo off injured, Ramos stepped up and curled a beautiful shot over the wall and into the roof of the Valladolid net. If only he could have helped keep the hosts out at the other end late on.

Ask a Madridista whether they’d rather see their team lift the Champions League this season or La Liga and the majority will undoubtedly say the Champions League -- La Decima. There will be disappointment, and concern, at the way they've let the league title slip, however, despite being in numerous positions to make themselves favourites for domestic glory. The injury doubts will only add to the worries.

Los Blancos could be out of the title race this weekend if Atleti beat Malaga at the Vicente Calderon on Sunday. All eyes then will turn to a revenge mission on their neighbours from beside the Manzanares when the sides meet against in Lisbon. Morale will be low following defeat to Valladolid but Madrid should waste no time drowning their sorrows with their own personal bigger fish to fry.