Problems pile up for Real Madrid
A Real Madrid team that began under strength and then suffered two important-looking injuries did just enough to beat Real Betis 3-1 at a sunny Bernabeu on Saturday, but raised more selection worries for Jose Mourinho ahead of Wednesday's Champions League semi-final first leg at Borussia Dortmund.
Mesut Ozil's double and Karim Benzema's neatly-taken effort saw Mourinho's men past a Betis side who had their chances in the second period but ultimately had just Jorge Molina's penalty to show of it.
Of more concern to the Real coach was an early injury that saw Marcelo stretchered from the pitch, leaving Madrid with no fully-fit senior full-backs, and the muscle problem that forced Luka Modric to limp off late on.
These injuries were a concern with the trip to Dortmund just four days away, Madrid assistant boss Aitor Karanka afterwards.
"Marcelo has felt a lot of pain," Karanka said. "Luka, it looks more a muscle strain. It is true, though, that they [the injuries] were the worst thing from the game."
Betis boss Pepe Mel was more worried that his team had not taken advantage of the situation to claim at least a point, which could be important in their challenge for a Europa League spot.
"A draw would have been more fair, but there is no such thing as fairness in football," he said afterwards. "We lost a game 3-1 which we should have at least drawn 2-2."
Mel said pre-game that Madrid's reserves could win La Liga, and there were no surprises when Mourinho's starting XI was under strength.
Eyebrows were raised, however, at the inclusion of Brazilian midfielder Casemiro, who was making his senior Madrid debut after joining the B team in January. Nacho, who had been a cause celebre of the local press in the autumn, made his first senior start of 2013 at right-back. Xabi Alonso, Sergio Ramos and Sami Khedira were not in the squad. Marcelo was captain.
Considering the furore around Mourinho's sparing use of homegrown youth products in the past, he would have known that Casemiro's inclusion was likely to cause a stir.
The Brazilian, 21, joined from Sao Paulo on loan in January, and has since played nine games in La Segunda with Castilla, Madrid's B side, without pulling up too many trees.
The focus was on Casemiro - who showed little evidence of any burgeoning talent - early on, as not much else was really happening in the late afternoon sunshine. Betis were not really sure whether to try and take advantage of any potential disinterest on their opponents' behalf or stick to a pre-game plan to play on the counter-attack.
Benat, sometimes spoken of as an (unlikely) eventual replacement for Alonso in Madrid's midfield - and the scorer of the winner when the teams last met in November - started slowly but grew into the game. The Spanish international was at the heart of the first half's best move, which ended with Dorlan Pabon's 20-yard strike skidding off the top of the Madrid crossbar. Joel Campbell and Ruben Castro had also earlier missed decent chances.
There was always the feeling, though, that Madrid could score if they really wanted to. Out of nowhere, Ronaldo, who always wants to win everything, twisted into space and arrowed a 25-yard left-footer off the post.
Ozil and Benzema looked less plugged-in, but combined well to break the deadlock just before the break. A slick one-two broke the Betis offside trap, and the German nonchalantly sent keeper Adrian the wrong way from ten yards.
Mel pointed out that even a weakened Madrid XI contained plenty of world-class talent. "It depends on how you look at the line-up," he said. "A team with Ronaldo, Benzema and Ozil is a very good team."
Bustling centre-forward Jorge Molina entered for visiting midfielder Nosa Igiebor at the break but, before Betis could readjust, it was 2-0. Ozil carried the ball 50 yards up the pitch and found Ronaldo, who slid it behind the defence for Benzema to neatly finish.
When Modric limped off, neither replacement Pepe nor the peripheral Casemiro were able to stop Benat from running midfield. The visitors got one back after breaking, Madrid-style, from an opposition set-piece. Jorge Molina played in Ruben Castro, who cut back and was taken out by a wrong-footed Nacho. Molina stroked the penalty high past Diego Lopez.
Betis now believed in an equaliser, and nervous home fans begin to whistle referee Alvarez Izquierdo. The official then went to talk to Mourinho after the coach disagreed with a decision to book Ronaldo for a high foot.
Mel said his side had rattled Madrid, adding: "In the second half, we pressed much more. We were in with a chance for the whole game."
As the game grew more frantic, Betis almost equalised as Castro hammered a shot off the bar when Ricardo Carvalho's back-header dropped short.
But Madrid sealed the win when Ozil tapped home from a few yards after Jose Callejon knocked back Ronaldo's deep cross. The German, who now has nine goals and 19 assists this season, had outshone everyone, Karanka said.
"We know the player Ozil is, what he creates," he said. "Today we were maybe not as brilliant as usual, and he was very good for us."
Mel agreed on who had been the game's standout performer. "Ozil is one of the most undervalued players in La Liga," the verdiblanco boss said. "He is at the level of [Leo] Messi and Ronaldo. He is a great player."
The German's form means Modric was unlikely to start in Dortmund anyway, so Mourinho's major issues are in defence. With Michael Essien, Fabio Coentrao and now Marcelo all on the doubtful list, and Alvaro Arbeloa suspended, Sergio Ramos looks sure to start at right-back, perhaps with Nacho on the left.
The canterano never looked sure against Betis, in either attack or defence, and his rash challenge for the penalty summed up another performance showing that Madrid fans' (and pundits') hopes of a new home-grown defensive star were misplaced.
Karanka defended the performance of the Castilla captain, saying: "Nacho played a great game. He fits in very well for us when we need him. He always does well for us."
Dortmund's Marco Reus, Mario Gotze and company would test that faith in the young defender. Mourinho will be hoping the injury to Marcelo is not as bad as it seemed.