Impatient Real Madrid fans were on the verge of turning against Cristiano Ronaldo, but in the space of 15 short minutes he delivered a reminder of his qualities.
Ronaldo’s pass went out of play and the Bernabéu, frustrated, whistled. The next time he got the ball, he saw a bit of space, knocked the ball out in front, took a run up as if taking a free kick and battered the ball into the net from thirty yards. The stadium erupted. One minute and twenty-two seconds had passed; from whistled to worshipped in the blink of an eye. A moment later, he smashed in a superb free kick and then almost immediately after hit another one that was almost identical — just a little further out and instead of flying into the net it flew off the bar, via the goalkeeper’s hand. Then he scored a tap in.
Fifteen minutes had passed from first goal to third, and there was still time for one more — a header from a corner. Four more to take him top of the Pichichi chart and the ESM Golden Shoe table. They say you shouldn’t whistle your own players. But if it works …
Or perhaps not. It doesn’t always help. At the end of their 1-0 defeat against Las Palmas, Villarreal manager Marcelino quite rightly insisted: “I would like to remind you that it’s not normal to go fourteen games without losing [before today]: at times I think that escapes people, including the fans. I don’t understand how people can start whistling us after fifteen minutes. I go home sad because there are things that I find hard to understand.”
Full-back Mario agreed: “there’s a kind of murmuring around the ground … and that reaches you on the pitch; it affects us.”
It is one of the great mysteries of the season in Spain, and no one seems to have been able to come up with an answer. Not even the man in charge. How can the team that has won twelve consecutive games at home not have managed a single win away? Not one. All. Season. Long. Not even when they went 2-0 up at Rayo a fortnight ago. Not even this weekend when, with five minutes left, they were 1-0 up against Getafe — the team that had lost seven in a row and had not even scored in the last six games. No, not even then could Sevilla collect the win. In the 85th minute, Getafe got an equaliser that means Sevilla are still the only team in Spain not to have won away.
They’re in fifth, eight points from final Champions League place; an even half-decent away record and they would be guaranteed a return next season, or perhaps more. Instead, the team that have beaten Barcelona and Real Madrid have an away record that reads: played 14, drawn 9, lost 5, won 0. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
“That’s nine draws and when you look at them one by one, game by game, that’s not so bad,” manager Unai Emery said.
“But when you look at them together it is; you’d be better off with four defeats and five wins. It’s hard to explain, and we are not approaching things differently. The reality is that every team is stronger at home: Madrid are, even Barcelona. But we have to improve to turn some of those draws into wins.”
Canal Plus’s cameras caught the exchange and it was quite the exchange. The shirts went round and round and back again.
In the final minute of their visit to Betis, Granada’s goalkeeper Andrés Fernández slid out of his area as Betis broke and was sent off for a handball which, he said, had not been: instead he claimed that the ball had hit him on the chest. As he was walking off, all the substitutions made, striker Isaac Success approached him and took the gloves and shirt off him to go in goal for the final minutes – and for the free kick that Fernández had just given away.
He took Fernández’s shirt, while Fernández walked off, pointing at his bare chest where he said the ball had hit him. In his hand, he carried Success’s shirt. As Success headed towards the goal, along came Cristiano Biraghi. I should go in goal, not you, Biraghi told Success. After all, if there’s one last breakaway, we need you up the pitch.
Biraghi took the goalkeeper shirt off Success. And because Success was left topless, what with Fernández having walked off with his shirt, Biraghi gave him his shirt. Just about then, a kitman came running to the touchline with a spare shirt for Success, an actual Success one, but he was not, ahem, successful.
The referee just wanted to get on with this now. He’d been waiting long enough. So, Rubén Castro went to take the free kick with Biraghi wearing Fernández’s shirt, Success wearing Biraghi’s shirt and Fernández holding Success’s shirt. And with Biraghi, a centre-back in goal, barking at Success, the centre-forward in the wall, to get out of the way. As for Rubén Castro, he scored.
In, out, in, out; up, down, up again. It’s the footage that has caused quite a stir in Valencia. More of one than it probably should have, in truth. But there you go. Sunday night, Valencia against Atlético Madrid. Late in the second half. Gary Neville was about to send on Alvaro Negredo when, just then, central defender Santos was sent off. At first, busy explaining what he wanted from his striker, Neville had not realised. But then, when he did, when match day delegate Voro told him that Santos had seen red, he had a rethink. Sorry, Alvaro. Negredo went to sit down instead, muttering something about watching it from the bench. Only, in the end, he didn’t. In the end, he went on. In the end.
Given the red card, putting on another centre-back (Abdennour) was a better idea, Neville thought. Or was it? Valencia were losing 2-1 and chasing the game, the clock ticking down. 79 minutes had gone.
“My coaching staff suggested that why didn’t we risk it and play Negredo instead,” Neville explained afterwards. “So we decided to do that.”
Down on the bench, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Pako Ayestaran and Miguel Ángel Angulo were in discussion, gathered around an iPad, the substitution suspended for a moment. Ok, they agreed; let’s do it.
At about that time, having watched the no.9 get up and then sit down again, aware that something was happening — or not happening — on the touchline, a chant was going round the stands. “Negredo! Negredo! Negredo!” It was clear who the fans wanted.
As it turns out, it was what the coaching staff wanted too (some accused them of wanting it only because they bowed into popular pressure but the images seem to show otherwise, backing up Neville’s explanation). Neville emerged from the bench, called to Negredo and up he got once more, a rueful smile on his face. Behind him, a couple of team-mates were giggling. So, on Negredo went. It was the 83rd minute now.
Negredo’s first touch came when he took the kick off two minutes later, after Atlético had scored a third.