While Barcelona's remaining schedule has been dissected quite a bit since the win at the Bernabeu, the Merengues faced a couple of tricky fixtures as well in this final month. They overcome one of them on Saturday against Zaragoza (the other is a trip to Mallorca in two weeks), and playing a starring role in the 2-1 victory were two players left for dead by most of the media and fans in Madrid.
The injury to Rafael van der Vaart after just 15 minutes presented Raul with a rare opportunity to play in something other than 'garbage' time, and the captain took full advantage by scoring the 228th league goal of his career to break the deadlock. But the bigger news came in the form of Kaka's lovely winner eight minutes from time after Adrian Colunga had equalized for the home side.
Colunga scored twice against Barcelona last month and is becoming something of a giant killer, but Madrid remains hot on the heels of the Catalan giants thanks to Kaka, who had just come on for his first appearance in 45 days. The Brazilian received a feed from Cristiano Ronaldo, also the provider for Raul's goal, and beat goalkeeper Roberto Jimenez with a perfectly angled shot.
Prior to Saturday, Kaka was last seen trudging off the field to a chorus of boos after being subbed off by Manuel Pellegrini in that ill-fated second leg against Lyon. He was blamed in large part for Madrid's Champions League exit and the long spell on the sidelines gave him no chance for redemption. Some even questioned whether he was milking the injury to stay fresh for the World Cup.
While Pellegrini categorically denied that charge, there is no question Kaka has failed to live up to the 65 million euro price tag in his first season in Spain. He's played well in some games, participated in lots of goals, but hasn't been the dynamic, difference-making presence Real expected. Whether he's still adjusting to his new surroundings or merely arrived a couple of years late is open for debate.
There were signs in his last season or two in Italy that Kaka had lost a step, but Madrid chose to believe he was weighed down by the problems at Milan and a change of scenery would turn things around. It certainly seemed plausible, and Kaka may yet turn out to be a great signing for Real, especially if he contributes more important goals like the one he scored on Saturday.
The Merengues still trail Barcelona by one point with four rounds remaining after Pep Guardiola's side overcame last-placed Xerez on Saturday. Los Azulinos may well drop down to the second division, but Nestor Gorosito deserves a great deal of credit, as his team gave Barcelona all it could handle in the 3-1 defeat, forcing Guardiola to bring on Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique in the second half.
Valladolid took advantage of Zaragoza's result with a 2-0 win over Sporting Gijon to climb within two points of Los Blanquillos in the battle to avoid relegation. Tenerife, meanwhile, fell 3-1 to Atletico Madrid, while Malaga earned a surprising point in Mallorca, as Gregorio Manzano's side squandered a great opportunity to increase its lead for the fourth and final Champions League position.
Sevilla sits two points behind after dropping a 4-3 thriller against Getafe, while Villarreal confirmed its good form by knocking off Racing Santander. The Yellow Submarine have won five of six and placed even more pressure on Athletic Bilbao, which heads to Pamplona on Monday to face Osasuna.
Tilting at Windmills (Barcelona vs. Madrid Referee report card)
Xerez finished the match with nine men after two red cards in stoppage time, giving the Madrid media some fodder this weekend, but the truth is Cesar Muniz had no impact in the final outcome. The same can't be said of Undiano Mallenco, who ignored a clear penalty in the first half when Matteo Contini hauled down Gonzalo Higuain, and should have sent off Contini much earlier in the game.
But the worst piece of refereeing came courtesy of Iturralde Gonzalez in the Racing-Villarreal match. After correctly awarding Villarreal a first-half penalty for a handball by defender Christian, Gonzalez inexplicably changed his mind and showed Nilmar a yellow card for no apparent reason.
Don Quixote (Player of the Round) – Luis Fabiano, Sevilla
Sevilla came up short in an incredible match against Getafe, but the Brazilian striker showed signs of recapturing his best form just in time for the World Cup. Luis Fabiano scored two goals on Sunday, the second coming after he trapped the ball with his chest and delightfully skipped past two defenders. He also provided an assist for Frederic Kanoute and smacked a free kick off the crossbar.
Fabiano did squander a clean breakaway in the first half, but Antonio Alvarez can have few complaints with his talented hitman. The defense is a different story and goalkeeper Andres Palop allowed another soft goal. Palop is spoiling an otherwise great season with a terrible last few weeks.
The Impossible Dream (Goal of the Round) – Sergio Canales, Racing Santander
Villarreal was made to work for its fifth victory in six games thanks to another masterpiece by Sergio Canales. The youngster demonstrated all his talent late in the first half by receiving a pass in the edge of the area, and spinning around before blasting an unstoppable shot into the upper corner. It was his sixth goal of the season, but the first since January 17.
It was not enough, however, for Racing to pick up a much-needed win at home, as Villarreal took the lead through second-half goals from Diego Godin and Nilmar. Los Verdiblancos remain dangerously close to the drop zone, and relegation would almost certainly mean Canales joining Real Madrid one year ahead of schedule. With goals like the one on Sunday, he might just be ready.
Sancho Panza (Unsung Hero of the Round) – Eduardo Salvio, Atletico Madrid
Expected to provide an immediate boost after arriving over the winter break, Eduardo Salvio has found the going tough in La Liga so far. But the Argentine youngster was granted a rare starting opportunity by Quique Flores and took full advantage, scoring twice in the 3-1 win over Tenerife. He combined very well with countryman Sergio Aguero, as Atletico dominated the first half.
When Los Chicharreros closed the gap to 2-1 through Roman Martinez, it was Aguero who stepped up and provided the clincher. Nevertheless, Sunday's contest will be remembered as Salvio's first big day in Spain, and Atletico fans hope there will be many more to come. Los Colchoneros snapped a three-match losing streak before turning their attention to the big Europa clash against Liverpool.
Rocinante (Goat of the Round) – Aritz Aduriz, Mallorca
The Mallorca hitman scored a vital goal on Sunday, helping Gregorio Manzano's side at least salvage a 1-1 draw against Malaga, but he spoiled whatever positive impression he'd made with some deplorable behavior after the final whistle. Aduriz physically attacked strike partner Alhassane Keita for not passing him the ball in stoppage time, connecting with a left-handed punch to Keita's face.
After an excellent first half of the campaign, Aduriz has struggled mightily since the winter break, and frustrations finally boiled over. But his actions threaten to disrupt the harmony that has been a major key for Mallorca, as Los Barralets find themselves two points ahead of Sevilla for the fourth and final Champions League position.
Miguel Cervantes (Quote of the weekend)
“It was negative. There were lots of nerves at the end of the match, and they chose the worst possible way to deal with those nerves. We'll talk on Monday.”
-- Gregorio Manzano acknowledges the bizarre clash between Keita and Aduriz.
“Men of La Mancha” appears Monday mornings on Goal.com. Also check out “Friends of Don Quixote” on Friday mornings for a preview of the action for the upcoming weekend. You can follow David Mosse on Twitter @Dmosse1980
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