Madrid feeling the heat
Even after Sunday evening's 1-1 draw with Valencia at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, there was a feeling that Real Madrid's title defence had not really begun yet. A game that kicked off in sizzling temperatures and was played in front of a cranky crowd ended with Madrid hoping that they had not lost more than just two points in the battle with Barcelona.
This year's La Liga season is kicking off a week earlier than usual, and many Madrileños are still at the beach - some city centre shops and bars remain closed as their owners escape the stifling summer heat. Those fans mopping their brows and clutching bottles of cool water - or something stronger - as they drifted from patch of shadow to patch of shadow towards the stadium were more likely to be discussing the sweltering temperatures than Jose Mourinho's surprising decision to start Lass Diarra in central midfield.
When the game began, it seemed the visitors were going to be more affected by suffocating conditions, with temperatures at 36 degrees Celsius inside the ground even at 7pm. Particularly affected, it seemed, was left-sided centre back Victor Ruiz, whose thoughts were apparently elsewhere as he let Gonzalo Higuain in to open the scoring after only ten minutes. The crowd momentarily roused themselves to cheer, and to whistle at former Madrid youth teamer Roberto Soldado, but their enthusiasm soon waned - particularly when the visitors, with the returning Fernando Gago gradually getting a grip on things in midfield, began to pass the ball well and cause problems for an increasingly sluggish home team. A long stoppage as Sergio Ramos received medical attention after a high boot from Sofiane Feghouli caught him on the forehead took more momentum from the proceedings.
The circumstances around Valencia's equaliser, with nobody really sure what had happened as Jonas wheeled away to celebrate while three Madrid players lay prone on the ground, added to the strange mood inside the stadium. While Valencia's few travelling fans in the North-East corner celebrated, the rest of the crowd took a few moments to register that their team had conceded. Replays showed that Madrid 'keeper Iker Casillas had clashed heads with both Pepe and Xabi Alonso as he tried in vain to claim Tino Costa's excellent ball in, but there was not even a hint of a foul and the goal stood.
The mood at half-time would have been even more gloomy had Feghouli not delayed his pass to Soldado and wasted a two-on-one just before the break. Discussions during the dash for more refreshments centred on the likely timing of Karim Benzema's arrival from the bench, as well as Madrid's lack of other attacking options, with nobody suggesting that Kaka was likely to be given a chance to bring extra vim or vigour to the game. When play began again, the only change had been to send on reserve centre-back Raul Albiol for Pepe, who had complained of dizziness in the dressing-room.
Even with the sun now setting behind the Bernabeu's west stand, Madrid could not shake their lethargy. The expected introduction of Benzema for Diarra took place, but even though the France striker, Mesut Ozil and Jose Callejon had shots saved by visiting keeper Diego Alves, and Higuain headed against the crossbar, there was no cavalry charge. Last season, whenever Madrid were behind or level at home, there was always a feeling that a goal would soon arrive to fix the situation. With Xabi Alonso, and particularly Cristiano Ronaldo, peripheral on Sunday, that sense of inevitability was absent. Whether it was the heat, the early start or something else, nobody quite knew.
Madrid fans were especially puzzled after an unwitting comedy moment midway through the second half when goalscorer Jonas claimed a free-kick and stopped playing, but referee Carlos Delgado Ferreiro told him to continue. The Brazilian seemed not to want to play on and waved his arms in complaint. Instead of seizing the opportunity, no Madrid player ran to challenge him, and Valencia kept possession.
The incident seemed to sum up an evening on which none of the players - or officials - had brought their A game. Even Mourinho was not his typical ferocious self on the sideline, and there was a warm handclasp for countryman Joao Pereira as the usually more focused coach handed the ball to Valencia's new right-back to take a throw in.
Afterwards, Madrid fans filed quietly out of the stadium, while Valencia's fans stayed to celebrate. Mourinho praised Alves' saves in the press room, and spoke of not wanting to use the heat and his players' international commitments as excuses while pointing to them as reasons for the dropped two points.
It could have been even worse for Madrid, as the game's key refereeing decisions both went their way - the same linesman judged Higuain onside for Madrid's goal and Soldado offside for a disallowed goal, while TV replays showed the visitors had come off worse with both decisions. "We have the feeling that something always happens at the Bernabeu," veteran midfielder David Albelda said after the game.
The result will be a boost for new Valencia coach Mauricio Pellegrino. Gago and Costa were excellent in midfield, while Mexican playmaker Andres Guardado impressed on his debut after a summer move from Deportivo la Coruna. Rafa Benitez' former assistant spoke in the post-game press conference about the importance of hard work, and his team will have been pleasantly surprised at how easily they disrupted Madrid's rhythm.
Considering how dominant La Liga's 'big two' have been in recent seasons, and how close the race for the title is likely to be, it was no surprise that the Madrid media reacted with concern to the loss of two points in week one. Marca headlined its Monday morning report "An upset to begin", describing an "accident of a game" in which Madrid "lacked freshness". AS felt Madrid were "without air or ideas", with reporter Pedro P. San Martin blaming a mix of the "crushing heat, opening day rustiness and a succession of physical calamities" for the result. It is a bit early to be getting too worried yet - and Madrid dropped early points last season at Levante and Racing Santander before rattling off 15 consecutive wins. Still, given that they won 17 of 19 games at home in 2011-12, this felt like a false start.
Adding to Madrid fans' worries is concern about Pepe, who was reportedly "stable" on Monday morning after spending the night in a Madrid hospital. As Ricardo Carvalho is currently looking for a new team with Mourinho's blessing, Albiol is again likely to deputise against Barcelona in this week's Spanish Supercopa first leg. With the Catalans already up and running after opening the season, and the Tito Vilanova era, with a rousing 5-1 win over Real Sociedad, Madrid will need to be wide awake at the Camp Nou on Thursday night.