In one respect these were three points Real Madrid had no business taking. In another it was the sort of battle in which champions prevail. There was nothing pretty about Los Blancos’ 2-1 win at Mallorca, Saturday, but sometimes winning ugly is more indicative of a side’s title credentials than coasting through the schedule, than obliterating everything along the path.
Madrid have done plenty of obliterating so far this season. Between their 0-0 draw at Racing Santander on September 21 and Barcelona’s 3-1 win at the Bernabeu on December 10 they rattled off 15 consecutive wins—a stretch in which they outscored their opponents a whopping 56-9. They’ve now won seven more matches on the bounce since the Clasico loss and scored at least five goals in three of them. As far as firepower is concerned, Madrid have nothing left to prove.
That’s why the test presented to them in Palma was far more meaningful than, for example, their 5-1 demolition of Granada a week ago. Mallorca really got stuck in to the league leaders, tracking Cristiano Ronaldo’s every move and lunging into the opposing ball-carrier with hard, legal tackles.
There will be more than a few bumps and bruises among José Mourinho’s men on Sunday morning, but there should be an equal measure of quiet satisfaction as well. Madrid came up against a feisty, determined opponent on Saturday, and despite playing below their abilities and fighting off their own apathy—let’s face it, no team can turn up week after week with sky-high levels of inspiration—they passed the examination.
- Mourinho was the real difference-maker on Saturday. Like every other observer he realized soon after kickoff that his players weren’t exactly stimulated and he made the necessary substitutions and tactical adjustments to compensate. His first move was to bring off the listless Lassana Diarra at half-time, deploying instead another forward in Gonzalo Higuain. It was Higuain who scored the equalizer in the 72nd minute, and he played a part in José Maria Callejon`s winner 12 minutes later as well.
- Madrid have some serious issues at the full-back positions. This is painfully evident whenever they go up against Barcelona, but even in Mallorca both the right and left flank-men substandard. Mourinho clearly doesn`t trust Alvaro Arbeloa, who he removed in favour of Kaka just prior to the hour mark. Marcelo, meanwhile, showed up to training overweight after a two-week Christmas break and is persistently unreliable defensively.
- Paul Scholes’ comeback doesn’t exactly show well on Manchester United’s other midfielders, nevermind the club’s ability to pursue meaningful acquisitions in the transfer market, but there’s no denying the 37-year-old’s passing ability is something the Red Devils had sorely missed until he ended his retirement last weekend. Yes, Scholes’ scored what proved to be the winner against Bolton Wanderers on Saturday, but it was his exquisite distribution that allowed his teammates to probe for an opening. When it comes to shifting possession from one side of the field to another with a single pass, there’s still very few better than Scholes in the Premier League.
- It was nice to see Michael Essien return to the Chelsea first team on Saturday. The 29-year-old ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee in July and hadn’t played at all this season until turning out for the reserves midweek against West Bromwich Albion. The Ghanaian replaced Frank Lampard in the 73rd minute of Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Sunderland at Stamford Bridge and will add a much-needed element of reliability to the Blues’ midfield. That, and an element of sandpaper.
- Catania and Roma were serving up the best entertainment of the Saturday programme until heavy rains and a waterlogged pitch forced their match at Stadio Angelo Massimino to be abandoned in the 65th minute. Sicily receives under three inches of rain on average in January, but judging by the pools on the field they likely surpassed that total in a single afternoon. Daniele De Rossi was substituted early in the second half as the players began hydroplaning over the surface, adding fuel to the rumours that the Roma midfielder may well be sold this month. The Italian Football League will convene to decide whether the remaining 25 minutes can be completed on Sunday.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer