In a match that only produced frustration for the home side, and one that seemed destined to become a squandered opportunity to define its La Liga season, Cristiano Ronaldo’s stoppage time flick into the back of the net secured a tie against Valencia for Real Madrid on Sunday, and in doing so kept the Galacticos’ brightest hopes intact.
Already possessing the characteristic of a class “trap game”–having followed the monumental 4-0 drubbing at Bayern Munich that catapulted the team into the Champions League Final–Madrid’s bout in the Bernanbeu versus 8th-placed Valencia offered a fantastic chance to take a leap forward in their pursuit of a treble: Copa del Rey (already accomplished), La Liga regular season, and CL championships. Earlier in the day, surprise league leader Atletico Madrid dropped its third-to-last remaining match to Levante, in a 2-0 defeat. Madrid’s chances at a La Liga title rested on an Atletico’s lapse in performance, so having knowledge of its inner-city rival’s loss, Real headed into its own game on Sunday in control of its own destiny: if it were to win out, it would clinch its second league title in three years.
But the trap-game effect was in full force, as Madrid had the better chances (32 shots to Valencia’s 8) and displayed more domination (58-42% possession lead), but the worse luck: Los Blancos yielded a score with just a minute until halftime, and after equalizing in the 59th minute, they faced a deficit once more six minutes later.
The home crowd, players, and Carlos Ancelotti looked discomforted and stunned, fully aware that they were faltering at the worse possible moment. The period following Valencia’s go-ahead score dragged on hopelessly, as the team failed to capitalize on a multitude of crosses, set pieces, and spirited runs. Team-wide agitation and desperation, as often is the case in similar situations, was best epitomized by Madrid’s star player–Ronaldo–as the negative side to his charisma showed, gesticulating to and berating his fellow teammates.
Thus, it seemed only proper for the mercurial striker to lift his team out of the mud. Two minutes into additional time, with the Madridistas pressing amid a lull in the game, Ronaldo back-heeled an incredible goal off of an Angel di Maria cross from the left flank. An elusive equalizer had finally arrived, and although Real Madrid could not score off two more close chances in the remaining stoppage time, it had salvaged an important point in the La Liga standings.
Atop the league standings, Atletico (88 points, 36 games played), Barcelona (85 PTS, 36 GP), and Madrid (83 PTS, 35 GP) sit, in that order. Yet of course, with one more game left to play than its two counterparts, Madrid’s championship goals do not appear nearly as bleak. Furthermore, strength of schedule plays into Madrid’s favor compared to its league-topping rivals, as evident by each of the three teams’ remaining matches:
vs. 13th Malaga (May 11th), at 2nd Barcelona (May 18th)
at 14th Elche (May 11th), vs. 1st Atletico (May 18th)
at 19th Real Valladolid (May 7th), at 9th Celta Vigo (May 11th), vs. 12th Espanyol (May 18th)
The true decisive point occurs on May 18th, when Atletico visits Camp Nou for the third time this season. Atletico and Barca are acquainted with each other as well as any other two teams in European soccer, having already squared off five times in the 2013-2014 campaign, and due for another contest (two league Super Cup games, two CL quarterfinal games, and what will be two La Liga games). Moreover, the two squads match up against each other just as evenly: the first five results have consisted of four draws and one infamous Atletico CL victory, with a combined total of a mere five goals–a 3-2 aggregate in favor of Atletico for anyone counting.
It would hardly be outlandish to believe that the Catalans can scratch out a victory in another fiercely-contested match against Atletico, and even more probable that they could draw the visitors. Bringing the focus back to Real Madrid, Los Galacticos would content themselves with this result, or even a tie at Camp Nou. Assuming Madrid wins out to close the season, either of the aforementioned results would lead to a La Liga title. In regards to the former outcome (if Barca wins), and again under the assumption of three more victories, Madrid would possess at least a one-point edge over Barcelona at season’s end. For the latter outcome (if Barca ties), Madrid at the least would be even with Atletico in point total at the season’s conclusion, but vault ahead into first place with current control over the tie-breaking-determinant of goal differential: at the moment, Madrid has a more than comfortable 15-point edge in this category, bolstered by the fact that Madrid has one more game to add to that difference.
Of course, this development depends heavily on Madrid’s ability to close out the season strong, and not lose focus by looking ahead to its most important game of the campaign: fittingly, against Atletico in the Champions League finale on May 22nd in Lisbon. As for now, Cristiano Ronaldo saved the day for his side, and if not to assume and get caught up in future events too much, perhaps even a season that could garner a treble.