Real Madrid's 9-1 win a strong first step toward end-of-season goal
Three down, 27 to go: Real Madrid's crushing 9-1 victory over Granada on Sunday afternoon was the first step towards the club's stated goal of winning the 10 matches remaining in the Liga season -- their play to apply maximum pressure on leaders Barcelona.
And it was quite a statement of intent. Aside from Cristiano Ronaldo's first career five-goal haul, James Rodriguez's eye-catching performance after two months out and the BB's fine supporting act, there was a joy to Madrid's play that has been lacking in recent weeks.
The Bernabeu is back on board, for now at least, and Carlo Ancelotti noted that his squad is more or less fully fit, fresh and fired up. Pepe should be available again for the Champions League clash with Atletico next week and there are no other injury concerns at the moment.
There is a caveat to Sunday's romp, and it was attached by Abel Resino: "We just weren't up to the task today," the deflated Granada manager noted.
Resino's side were not abysmal; the visitors might have taken the lead through Robert Ibanez and managed six shots on target from 11 attempts to Real's 11 from 29, not a bad return in the Bernabeu. But sometimes everything goes in and that was the case for Ancelotti's side.
Oier Olazabal certainly won't have taped the highlights. The Granada keeper had more touches than any of his teammates -- although the stats don't specify if plucking the ball from the back of his net is included -- and was awarded a 1.89 out of 10 by whoscored.com.
For Real the signs were extremely positive. When Alvaro Arbeloa features among the side's most accurate passers of the ball, something is afoot. The UEFA anti-doping inspectors who descended on Valdebebas this week should have set their machines to check for good old-fashioned fairy dust. And Arbeloa had just 10 fewer touches than Luka Modric.
Whatever Ancelotti has said and done in training this week has had the desired effect, and at just the right time. As Marcelo noted after the match: "The confidence is back."
But can Real genuinely expect to win their remaining nine matches? As Ancelotti pointed out, we don't have to trawl too far back in the mists of time for a precedent: "We have the quality to do it. It's not a utopia. We did it from September to December, and we can do it again," the Italian said, while adding: "We can't afford any slip-ups."
The Italian's side are of course relying on Barcelona to do exactly that, at least twice. If Real take the remaining 27 points on offer they will finish the season on 94. Barça need to draw two of their remaining fixtures to wind up on the same total, in which case Real will claim the title courtesy of superior head-to-head results. The way this season has gone so far, it could go down to the wire.
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The title was decided on head-to-head as recently as 2006-07, when Fabio Capello's Real pipped Frank Rijkaard's Barça to the post, courtesy of a 2-0 victory in the Bernabeu. The last time either side won the title they did so with 100 points. That impossibility this season is a measure of the comparative competitiveness of La Liga's lesser lights. Real have been deprived of 20 points already and Barcelona 16.
As Luis Enrique has opined: "No side will win all of their remaining matches."
Of the two, Barcelona have the harder run-in, playing three of the sides currently in the top six in Sevilla, Valencia and Atletico, with a local derby to negotiate at the Power8 stadium. Real face Sevilla and Valencia and also travel to Espanyol, who could prove decisive as they did in 2006-07 when Real won a 4-3 thriller and Barcelona were held 2-2 on the penultimate day of the season.
This time around, the fixture before last throws up Atletico Madrid for Barcelona. However, Madrid must also travel to Celta's Balaidos stadium and as Barcelona discovered on Sunday night, there are no free points there.
Barcelona play Sevilla away and welcome Valencia to Camp Nou over the next two weekends, and Unai Emery's team are in particularly formidable form, suffering just one loss in their last 11 games in all competitions, a 4-3 reverse at Sociedad's Anoeta. In recent weeks Sevilla have defeated Villarreal three times, held Atletico, and at the weekend Athletic were brushed aside. Three of the four points Real need Barcelona to drop could easily remain at the Sanchez Pizjuan on Saturday.
Barça then face PSG in the Champions League before the Valencia game; Luis Enrique doesn't have much scope for resting key players at the moment. Real meanwhile host Eibar and Malaga at the Bernabeu either side of the European fixtures. Ancelotti could well call on the likes of Arbeloa, Sami Khedira and Jese & Co. for the Eibar match -- Gaizka Garitano's side have picked up two points from their last 11 games and those were taken off Granada and Cordoba. The fixture list will also apply a little extra pressure on Barça in Seville; Real play earlier in the day and will, in all likelihood, be a single point behind the leaders when the ball rolls off the spot.
Ancelotti, like Luis Enrique, knows full well that nine games are plenty for a change of the guard at the top of the table. The next two weeks could be among the most important of the season in that respect.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.