Ronaldo's double vs. Celta moves Real Madrid within one point of La Liga title
Three quick thoughts from Real Madrid's 4-1 La Liga win over Celta Vigo at Balaidos on Wednesday night.
1. Madrid one point away from La Liga crown
Cristiano Ronaldo's latest double kept Real Madrid on course for the Liga title on a dramatic night at Balaidos that saw Los Blancos again ride their luck at times but win 4-1 and move three points clear at the top of the table with just one game left to play.
The result means Barcelona now need to beat Eibar on Sunday and hope Malaga can upset Madrid, or Los Blancos will secure their first Primera Division title in five seasons.
Just eight seconds into the game, Celta made it clear to Ronaldo and Madrid that they would have to battle for everything, as Pablo "Tucu" Hernandez clipped the Portuguese's ankle in the game's first challenge. Just nine minutes later, the capital club's talisman shot his team in front with a superb low drive from the edge of the penalty area.
Celta did not change their approach and kept pouring players forward. Three times in 15 minutes Iago Aspas had his sights on the goal, but he could not trouble Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas. The home side then wanted a handball penalty on Madrid's Raphael Varane, and Aspas was booked for taking his protest to referee Juan Martinez Munuera too far. The Galicians' gung-ho tactics were leaving gaps at the back, and Madrid's Karim Benzema had a penalty claim as the game neared the break.
Just after half-time Celta had their best chance to get back into the game, but John Guidetti's control let him down 8 yards out. Madrid immediately broke straight up the other end, Isco dribbled past two players in the centre of the park and then timed and weighted his pass perfectly for Ronaldo, who slammed the ball home via the near post.
There was more controversy as Aspas walked after being shown a second yellow for diving in the box, and almost immediately Celta claimed Ronaldo got away with doing similarly at the other end. Both calls were debatable and will fuel conspiracy theories always rampant in Spain at this time of the year, although in this observer's view the referee's decisions were understandable.
Meanwhile, the frantic action continued as Madrid's Sergio Ramos deflected a shot by Guidetti past Navas to bring Celta within 2-1. But Madrid hit back quickly as Marcelo set up Benzema for a close-range finish. Toni Kroos calmly completed the scoring late on.
Manager Zinedine Zidane's Madrid side had this game in hand since February and clung to it even after Barca went ahead in the table after last month's Clasico at the Bernabeu. A Madrid draw at Malaga on Sunday would secure the title, no matter what Barca manager Luis Enrique's men do at the Nou Camp.
2. Ronaldo clinical once again
This was Ronaldo's first away game in La Liga in a little less than two months, as Zidane had been resting him regularly to ensure he reached the final stage of the season ready to fire. And boy, has that plan worked out perfectly.
Playing alongside Benzema as part of a two-man attack, due to Isco's attacking midfield role, Ronaldo could hang around up top and wait for chances to come. There was great economy about his opening goal; one touch to shift the ball away from Facundo Roncaglia and another to arrow a shot through the Argentina centre-back's legs and right in the corner where goalkeeper Sergio Alvarez had no chance.
We did not see much of the Portuguese until early in the second half, when he was lurking right on the shoulder of the last defender and then calmly again took one touch to control and another to ping the ball to the net. Again, Sergio could only watch. It was deadly finishing of the highest quality. At his best both physically and mentally at the moment, Ronaldo has 13 goals in his past eight games in all competitions.
Almost as an afterthought, Ronaldo's double on the night took him to 368 goals in league competition for Manchester United and Madrid. This took him past 1960s England striker Jimmy Greaves to become the top scorer of all time across Europe's top leagues.
Individual stats were not the aim Wednesday, though, and Zidane removed his top scorer with the game won and six minutes remaining. This was all about ensuring Ronaldo and his side remain on course for the title.
3. Celta show Madrid still have some weaknesses
Even as they got the three points to move one step closer to the title, Zidane's team were rarely in control of the proceedings.
This was Zidane's best available Gala XI, with nobody rested or rotated. Celta were still able to find regular gaps, and the visitors' midfield looked threadbare at times, the defence stretched as it has often been in recent games. Danilo especially had a difficult game at right-back and was limping after a knock late on, so it would be no surprise if Nacho comes into the XI in Malaga. Ramos was erratic at centre-back, but the captain is sure to keep his place.
For most of the game, Isco was at his effervescent best in attacking midfield, but the little Andalusian does not often play two consecutive matches for Zidane and perhaps could be left out against his former club on Sunday. An overconfident mistake -- Isco coughed up possession, leading to Guidetti's goal -- could also count against him.
James Rodriguez should overcome the knock to his foot (or the distraction over his potential Manchester United summer transfer) and could come into the lineup, although Mateo Kovacic was first called upon to settle things down at 3-1 up.
Madrid showed that they could overcome the flaws in their team and keep on track for the title. Do the same again in four days' time and the title is theirs.
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