By Paul Macdonald | Deputy Editor
Then there were six.
On Sunday afternoon, few outside the region of Catalunya would have dared suggest that the Primera Division title race could be revived. The cavernous 10-point advantage held by a relentless Real Madrid seemed completely insurmountable, with Jose Mourinho's side having played 26, won 23, and lost just two.
But bring forth a cliche - a week of football, in the case of the league leaders, has proven to be a very long one indeed.
Wednesday evening's 1-1 draw versus Villarreal, arriving in the aftermath of Sunday's surprise capitulation versus Malaga at the Santiago Bernabeu, has shown us that Madrid aren't quite over the line yet. Amidst the anarchy that ensued at El Madrigal, their resolute facade has cracked, ever so slightly, with the Primera Division shimmering on the horizon.
The two fixtures, Malaga and Villarreal, were undeniably different in their execution. Had the formerly assured Karim Benzema not been so profligate, victory would have been cemented long before Santi Cazorla's stoppage-time silencer.
|LA LIGA - AS IT STANDS
| R. MADRID
Against the Yellow Submarine, however, Madrid were further from their most fluent. The hosts, revitalised by that curious notion - the new coach in the dugout - are a team fighting for their Liga lives, and were far more fastidious in defence than during the haphazard death throes of previous incumbent Jose Molina. Under the tutelage of the notoriously tentative Miguel Angel Lotina, they gave Madrid a genuine challenge, and the visitors, perhaps with the silence created by Cazorla imprinted in their memory, toiled to assert themselves to the level they have achieved so ruthlessly across the campaign.
But the match itself was settled in two key areas. The first of which was the decision to opt for the trivote of Lassana Diarra, Xabi Alonso, and Sami Khedira from the start. Diarra's reckless early challenge left him cautioned with three minutes played, then substituted after 29 as Mourinho sought to maintain his full compliment of players on the pitch. The Frenchman's folly may have interrupted a well-laid plan, but Villarreal were undoubtedly superior while he was on the field, with Nilmar and Marcos Senna both passing up opportunities to open the scoring. The team failed to harmonise throughout, and even in their dominant spells of the second period, Cristiano Ronaldo's sumptuous goal aside, they fell below the required standard to see out the match.
El Mad-rigal | Madrid should have seen out the victory after Ronaldo's superb opener
At the point of Ronaldo's goal, Madrid were in the process of doing what champions do - collecting the obligatory hard-earned three points at a notoriously difficult venue. That was before the second contributory factor, referee Jose Paradas Romero, made his inauspicious presence felt, and all hell broke loose.
Mourinho and Romero have past history - the official sent the Portuguese to the stands in November 2010 during a Copa del Rey fixture versus Murcia, and the coaches' gesticulations in the technical area once more gathered the attention of the man in the middle.
The altercations began slowly, simmering, before exploding like Krakatoa. Firstly, the ever-exuberant Rui Faria, Madrid's fitness coach, was expelled from the touchline for the fourth time this season. Then, Marco Ruben was shown a yellow card, when it appeared that he had already been booked during a heated incident in the first half. It later emerged that the LFP website had awarded two bookings to Cani, who remained on the pitch, before their website subsequently crashed.
But when a free kick awarded 30 yards from goal for a foul by Hamit Altintop on Joan Oriol was duly swerved home by Marcos Senna, Mourinho became apoplectic, and he joined Faria in the stands, while refusing to acknowledge the media afterwards.
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LEAGUE FIXTURES UNTIL THE CLASICO
The players, partly stung by their own inability to carefully close out the contest, mirrored the indiscipline offered by their mentor. Instead of maintaining an air of calm, they embraced the opportunity for rebellion. Sergio Ramos' head-high challenge on Nilmar, following through with his elbow, saw him collect a second yellow. Mesut Ozil quickly followed for his protestations. Romero, who had also failed to acknowledge a blatant tug on Nilmar in the first half which should have resulted in a penalty for the hosts, had lost complete control by this point, brandishing bookings like a get-out-of jail-free card against the crime of his own incompetence.
But Madrid unwittingly followed him into the abyss of self-implosion. Ronaldo can cry foul play, and Pepe may launch insults towards those he believes are against him and his team, but Romero's only saving grace lies in the impartiality of his ineptness. Both sides were burned by his decision-making, yet Madrid were the ones that took it personally.
They allowed emotion and, perhaps, expectation, to get in the way of seeing out what would have been a monumental win in the confines of the title race. The lead had been theirs. The points were within their grasp. Had they simply performed in their own ominous style from the off, Villarreal, a team clinging onto a season that descended into freefall almost as soon as it had began, would have folded.
Yet now, a disappointing draw has escalated into a myriad of controversy; the performance of self-harm ramped undue tension during the match, and will have ramifications for the weekend fixture against Real Sociedad. Diarra is suspended after collecting his fifth booking. Ramos and Ozil are unavailable, while Mourinho will likely be jettisoned to the stands for his behaviour. These are inconveniences they could very much do without.
They remain the masters of their own destiny, but Barcelona had been afforded a reprieve, a distinct beam of light where before, as Pep Guardiola alluded to over the weekend, there had been no possibility for salvation. With a final Clasico to come in over a month's time, the dying embers of a title race have been unexpectedly stoked, and Madrid must regain their composure if it is to end with gratification.
Starting on Friday and continuing for the next 10 weeks, Goal.com will be publishing exclusive extracts from Luca Caioli's new book, Cristiano Ronaldo: The Obsession for Perfection. Don't miss it!