Three Points: Real Madrid vs. Atletico
MADRID -- Three observations from Real Madrid's 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup.
1. Ronaldo's injury woes not over
Cristiano Ronaldo's 2014-15 season has started just as his 2013-14 finished -- with his contribution being hampered by injury. The Portuguese was a peripheral presence through the first half here and did not appear for the second period, with news of his substitution being greeted by low murmurs around an Estadio Santiago Bernabeu now clearly worried about the long-term fitness of a player it cannot do without.
The reigning Ballon D'Or holder has been suffering since at least April from a tendinosis (chronic tendinitis) problem in his left knee, and completed just three of Madrid's last 11 games last season. All of those were in the Champions League, including the final, where he was hardly noticed until ripping off his shirt to celebrate after scoring late on when the game was already decided.
The Portugal captain was then carefully nursed into the World Cup and played all his side's games in Brazil, but again struggled to have his usual influence on the game, and scored only late on in his country's third game when there was less at stake. He then featured just fleetingly in Madrid's preseason tour of the United States before apparently confirming his fitness with a double-strike in last week's European Super Cup win over Sevilla.
But such hopes of a clean start to the new campaign were nixed when the 29-year-old did not appear after the break on Tuesday. While the club did not immediately confirm what the issue was, reporters at the game said he had been seen grimacing and clutching his left thigh toward the end of his time on the pitch.
"Cristiano had a strain and after the first half was not comfortable," Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said. "We will evaluate it tomorrow, and do the tests. At first it does not seem so serious."
Local journalists close to the club had written during the summer about club concerns that the player had risked his long-term fitness by not resting his knee sufficiently when doctors had advised him to, and about him rushing back too soon for the new campaign. Such stories are now likely to appear again in the coming days, especially if Ronaldo misses Friday night's second leg at the Estadio Vicente Calderon.
Meanwhile, Ronaldo's injury meant 80 million-euro James Rodriguez could play in one of his favoured positions, wide on the left. The Colombian found it difficult, giving up possession often against Atletico's tough tacklers, but showed a galactico's sense of occasion to arrive in the right place at the right time and scramble home the opening goal of the night. It was a highlight for Madrid fans, but will not have wiped away worries over their No. 7's current state of fitness.
2. New season's Atletico is quite similar to the old season's Atletico
Last year's champions may have lost key players in Thibaut Courtois, Diego Costa and Filipe Luis, but the idea remains the same. Diego Simeone had complained pregame about the lack of sense in playing two Supercopa games so close to the start of the new league season, and captain Gabi Fernandez denied his side were out for revenge for last May's Champions League final, but it was clear the visitors had no intention of treating this derbi as an exhibition game.
Atletico's intensity and commitment were clear from the off, with midfielder Koke seeing yellow after just four minutes after diving in on Madrid centre-back Pepe. Next into the book was new signing Guilherme Siqueira, with the left-back being perhaps fortunate to stay on the pitch given his scything tackle on Gareth Bale.
Another new signing, Mario Mandzukic, also typified Atletico's commitment, with the Croatian international spotted at least three times making tackles back in his own half in the first period, including robbing Bale after Madrid broke quickly from a corner. The Croatian also continued Diego Costa's tradition of tangling with Sergio Ramos, who -- perhaps accidentally, perhaps not -- responded with a right fist into Mandzukic's face after the new No. 9 had taken him out in the air. Both players were booked, but the Atletico man had clearly come out on top.
And Atletico's undimmed spirit came through most strongly when Simeone's side managed to equalise late on. Madrid keeper Iker Casillas letting a corner bounce inside the 6-yard box was a help, but Raul Garcia's improvised finish showed his team still have that knack of grinding out results in whatever fashion they can.
3. Ancelotti and Bernabeu talks to Florentino
Ancelotti appeared to be making a statement with his lineup. Eighty million-euro galactico James Rodriguez was left on the bench, even with this being an apparently perfect occasion for showing off new purchases. Meanwhile Xabi Alonso -- who according to apparent leaks from the club in recent weeks could be for sale -- was starting back in midfield.
Angel Di Maria was on the bench despite being apparently close to a move to Manchester United, showing how much Ancelotti rates (or needs) the Argentine's lung power in midfield. Last summer's 38 million-euro signing Asier Illarramendi was not even in the match squad.
This slightly cautious-looking Madrid XI struggled to create much in the first half, and had no shots on target by the break. Alonso was typically much involved, often spreading the play wide and early from the centre circle, and also being ready to shuttle across to snuff out any danger. The 32-year-old even picked up his customary yellow card for arriving late to stop the quicker-footed Koke.
Kroos and Modric also both got through their share of work, the German seemed to enjoy the physical challenge. He got a big cheer for nicking the ball away from Koke in centre of pitch early on, but there were groans when he later volleyed over an open goal during the second half. Modric also did his usual neat play and tidy passing around the middle, but without ever really threatening to break through Atletico's central core.
When Modric was removed late on there were huge cheers as Di Maria came onto the pitch. The very loud ovation sounded like a message to Florentino to halt plans to sell the Decima hero to United -- or anyone else who will pay the 60 million euro needed to balance Madrid's books for the summer.
Should that happen, though, another late surprise sale -- similar to Mesut Ozil moving to Arsenal last year -- could well happen.