By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Things may just be looking up for Real Madrid. Coach Carlo Ancelotti called for improvement ahead of tough tests against Juventus and Barcelona this week, and not only did he get it as the Blancos beat Malaga 2-0 on Saturday, but he also saw the team's two title rivals - the Catalans and Atletico - drop points in La Liga later on. For the under-pressure Italian, it was the ideal start to a crucial seven-day spell.
Malaga made life difficult for Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu as the visitors constantly caught out the home team with a dogged defence and a clever offside trap. And when those two failed, there was the wonderful Willy Caballero in goal to keep out almost all that was aimed at him in a quite brilliant display of shot-stopping. Once, even the woodwork intervened.
But Madrid improved markedly on Saturday following some underwhelming performances in recent weeks and Willy was finally beaten just after half-time, when Angel Di Maria's curling cross beat everyone - including the head of the airbound Cristiano Ronaldo - on its way to the corner of the net.
Ronaldo was thwarted by an inspired Caballero on a number of occasions and was only able to convert a contentious late penalty after substitute Gareth Bale went down in the box. Then, in a curious gesture towards the Madrid fans, the Portuguese said sorry to the Bernabeu and asked not to be acclaimed on an afternoon where he had not quite been at his best. High standards indeed.
Some stats from Saturday's action
|5||Cristiano Ronaldo rattled the crossbar on Saturday and has hit the woodwork more than anyone in La Liga this term|
|9||Madrid's nine wins at the beginning of the 1968-69 season remains a record after Barca and Atletico slipped up|
|22||Lionel Messi's return is a big boost for Barca, but the Argentine played only the last 22 minutes in Pamplona|
|64||Barcelona had scored in their previous 64 Liga games, but saw that streak ended by Osasuna on Saturday|
|100||Simeone's 100th game ended in defeat, but his record (64 wins and 17 losses) is better than any previous Atleti coach|
|224||Carles Puyol completed his comeback after 224 days out and partnered Marc Bartra at centre-back for the first time|
Ellsewhere, Alvaro Morata, in for the injured Karim Benzema, was full of passion and running in a pleasing performance in attack, while another canterano, Dani Carvajal, also impressed at right-back. "I liked the attitude of the team," Ancelotti added. "We defended well, we were more aggressive and more compact."
The Italian later saw Barcelona held in a goalless game at Osasuna, while Atletico lost their own unbeaten record with a 1-0 defeat at Espanyol. That means the Catalans lead La Liga with 25 points out of a possible 27, with Atletico one further back and Madrid (22) now just three behind ahead of next Saturday's Clasico clash at Camp Nou.
It was an insipid display from Barca and the champions rarely looked like scoring, but trips to Pamplona have proven problematic in recent seasons for Spain's top teams. So with Lionel Messi still some way short of full fitness, not featuring until late in the match and eight wins in the bag already for Gerardo Martino's men, it is hardly time to panic for the Catalan club.
"I am happy with the performance," Martino said after the game. "I would be worried if I thought the team was going backwards," he added. "But that is not the case.
In fact, Barca went clear at the top for the first time this term as Atletico met their match against an excellent Espanyol side at Cornella, where Thibaut Courtois' own-goal divided the two teams. "It was a game with hardly any space and we attacked with very little clarity," Atletico coach Diego Simeone said afterwards. "We found it difficult to get going."
Madrid, however, do finally seem to have got going, with only Willy's wonder saves stopping a heavy defeat for Malaga on Saturday. There is still room for improvement for Ancelotti's side, but the Blancos are now back in range in the fight for La Liga. So on a night when Barca drew and Atletico lost, the biggest winners wore white. And now just three points separate Spain's two biggest teams - the perfect prelude, perhaps, to next weekend's Clasico clash.
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