Cristiano Ronaldo nets a brace as Real stay on course for title with Sevilla win
MADRID -- Three thoughts from the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, as Real Madrid took another step closer to the La Liga title by defeating Sevilla 4-1 on Sunday.
1. Ronaldo double keeps Madrid in charge of title race
Real Madrid took another step toward the La Liga title with a 4-1 win over Sevilla on Sunday evening, with Cristiano Ronaldo again coming up with a double strike when it was needed most.
Goals from Nacho Fernandez and Ronaldo had Madrid 2-0 up by half-time, and although Stevan Jovetic got one back for Sevilla just after the break, Ronaldo continued his recent purple patch by sealing the win with just 12 minutes left with a superb effort. Toni Kroos then added to the lead with a neatly taken strike.
The two late goals settled the nerves at the Bernabeu and ensured Madrid remained in control of the title race due to their game in hand -- even with Barcelona still top of the table for now with their 4-1 win at Las Palmas.
A rotated Madrid XI were ahead on 10 minutes when Nacho's quick-witted free kick caught out a sleeping Sevilla defence, and midway through the first half, Ronaldo netted his 400th Madrid goal (his 281st in La Liga) after Sevilla goalkeeper Sergio Rico could not hold on to a James Rodriguez shot.
Just after Madrid had eased two up, word came through at the Bernabeu that Neymar had put Barca ahead 2,000 kilometres away at Las Palmas, with Luis Suarez soon adding a second. Zinedine Zidane's team seemed to relax at that point, assuming the weekend's drama was already over, but Sevilla kept attacking and had the better chances through the remainder of the first period.
Jovetic finally got his deserved goal soon after half-time, and the game was now quite stretched with opportunities at either end. Zidane quickly made a double change, including stiffening his midfield by bringing Casemiro off the bench.
There was still worry around the stadium as Sevilla kept pressing for an equaliser, and then relief when Ronaldo scored a superb second of the night. There was a lot to do when Kroos pulled the ball back to him 15 yards out, but the Portugal striker contorted his body and speared an unstoppable first-time shot right into the top corner for goal No. 401. Kroos' calmly taken fourth goal ensured Madrid's fans left the Bernabeu for the last time this season in an excellent mood.
The result meant Madrid still have their destiny in their own hands. Four points between their game in hand at Celta Vigo on Wednesday and the trip to Malaga next Sunday will clinch a first title in five years, regardless of what Barca do at home to Eibar in their final game.
2. Madrid's defensive issues need to be fixed
Although the final scoreline was decisive, Sevilla found it quite easy to fashion good opportunities to score right from the start of the game. Throughout the match, Madrid's defence did not look up to the standard you would expect from a team closing in on both the La Liga and Champions League trophies.
Jovetic was the first half's most impressive attacking player by quite a distance, twice hitting the crossbar early on, first curling a 15-yard shot off the angle of post and crossbar, then chipping Keylor Navas but seeing his fine effort bounce away. Before half-time, he forced a superb reflex save from the Madrid goalkeeper. Jovetic finally had his goal just after half-time, curling in from the edge of the box after the Madrid defence and midfield had again been cut open.
Jovetic is an elusive player, but Madrid should not have been coughing up such chances. The rested Casemiro's holding presence was badly missed from the midfield until he was sent on to patch things up, while at right-back Danilo is clearly not in the same class as the currently hamstrung Dani Carvajal.
Most worrying, though, was the centre-back pairing of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, which is first choice and likely to start the Champions League final against Juventus. Ramos was regularly pulled way out of position by Sevilla's clever movement, while Varane still looks far from his best form after recent injury problems. The skipper is untouchable, of course, but Zidane may decide the veteran Pepe, who is soon to be available again, is the best option for Cardiff and Juve.
At this point, if anything is going to deny Madrid the domestic and European double, it is their shaky-looking defence.
3. Local lad Nacho coming into his own
While Ronaldo's double strike was, of course, key, the game's most creative and audacious moment came from an unlikely source. Madrid defender Nacho was thinking much more quickly than anyone when Marco Asensio was fouled early on, and calmly ran up to the free-kick spot to place a 25-yard shot past the ruck of arguing Sevilla players. With goalkeeper Rico unsighted, the ball nestled in the corner.
Cue even more arguments from the visiting side, which carried on for almost as long as Madrid's incredulous celebrations. Sevilla had no complaints, though, as even park players know that as soon as the whistle goes somebody needs to stand in front of the ball to stop a free kick from being taken before the defensive wall is formed. Referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco was correct to allow the goal, which was pretty startlingly just the second free kick Madrid have scored in La Liga all season.
There were huge cheers from the crowd, many of whom had also missed what happened, when Nacho was announced as the goal scorer. The versatile defender was at left-back here, allowing Marcelo to rest, and fulfilled his duties competently as usual. It was his 29th start of the season, his most ever for Madrid, and he has missed only one of the team's past 13 fixtures in all competitions.
It can be a surprise to recall that the local lad and steady backup is already 27, but this year, Nacho has emerged as a vital member of the squad.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan