By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Cause for concern. Real Madrid claimed the result they were looking for by defeating Valencia 2-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu on Tuesday, to move a step closer to the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey. But another poor performance left lasting doubts over their chances of success against the biggest teams at home and abroad. As things stand, Madrid would surely lose to Manchester United if the two clubs met currently. Luckily, Jose Mourinho's men have three more weeks to prepare for their Champions League clash with Sir Alex Ferguson's side. And they need them.
La Liga is already a distant dream for the reigning champions. Madrid trail Barcelona by 18 points in the Primera Division (with a game in hand) and must now focus their energies on the Champions League and the Copa del Rey. The worry, however, is whether the capital club can raise their game for the momentous meetings with the likes of Barca and United in the coming weeks. Their season's success will depend on it, but the early signs from 2013 have been far from encouraging.
Following the dire display at Osasuna last Saturday, things could seemingly only get better for Madrid. And they did, albeit only marginally. If the goalless game in Pamplona had provided nothing in the way of redeeming features, the win over Valencia had left little more.
|TOUGH TESTS ON THE HORIZON
|Valencia (a)||La Liga||20/01|
|Valencia (a)||Copa del Rey||23/01|
|Barca/Malaga (h)*||Copa del Rey||30/01|
|Man United (h)||C. League||13/02|
|Barca/Malaga (a)*||Copa del Rey||27/02|
|Barcelona (h)||La Liga||02/03|
|Man United (a)||C. League||05/03|
|A Madrid (a)||La Liga||27/04|
|*Must beat Valencia|
Karim Benzema's goal just before the break had broken the deadlock, but Valencia could count themselves unfortunate with several dubious decisions, as Roberto Soldado was incorrectly penalised on three separate occasions for offside. The former Madrid man had also seen a strike ruled out for the same offence in similar circumstances at the Bernabeu in the sides' 1-1 draw back in August. And he was furious.
"Something always happens [to us] at the Bernabeu," midfielder David Albelda had told reporters after that result, but Valencia only had themselves to blame on Tuesday as they contributed to their own downfall. Madrid's second goal arrived via a clumsy challenge from Andres Guardado, who turned the ball into his own net via Gonzalo Higuain's hand. Although unintentional, it was probably the Argentine's most significant offering on an uninspired yet ultimately successful night for the home team.
Madrid now travel to Valencia in La Liga on Sunday and then face Ernesto Valverde's men for a third time in the space of a week as the two teams meet again in the second leg of their Copa del Rey quarter-final tie on Wednesday. Play as they did on Tuesday, however, and there is no guarantee of success for Mourinho's men in either fixture.
In the end, a two-goal advantage should suffice in the cup, but a semi-final against either Barcelona or Malaga is likely to need a significant shift in gear from the capital club. Sub-standard showings like those of last Saturday or Tuesday are unlikely to cut it.
And thoughts of progressing past Manchester United in the last 16 of the Champions League can also be firmly extinguished if displays continue to be below expectations. Jose Mourinho's mind is no doubt now geared towards triumphing in that double date in February and March, but he has to get it right and that means much improvement between now and then.
Tales of dressing-room discontent persist, with Mourinho and Ronaldo recently clashing, while injuries are hardly helping, either, but these next few weeks could go on to define the 49-year-old's time in Spain. And if the coach and his under-performing players cannot club together to hit the heights in the remainder of 2012-13, an already unconvincing campaign could end in tears - sooner rather than later.