Real Madrid hosted Valencia needing three points to keep the title race firmly in their favour. With Sergio Ramos suspended, Jose Mourinho chose Raul Albiol to fill his centre-back role. Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema started instead of the recently healthy Di Maria.
Valencia came into the Bernabeu encounter off the back of a 5-0 hammering of AZ Alkmaar on Thursday and the subsequent progression into the Europa League semifinals. Despite European success and being top four in the league, Unai Emery remains the whipping boy for unhappy Valencia fans. Most likely this frustration is aimed at the setup of La Liga; Valencia have virtually no chance of winning the league anytime soon. But this strange coach/supporter relationship has already been covered by many in recent weeks so I will leave it at that.
Jose Mourinho started with more of a 4-2-1-3. Ronaldo began the match in the centre of the pitch with Higuain and Benzema operating on each flank. Ozil played between the attacking three and Xabi Alonso and Khedira. Seven minutes in Ozil drifted wide left opening the middle up for Ronaldo who stepped over to his right foot and dented the woodwork.
With Ronaldo roaming the centre, Ozil struggled to find time on the ball. The lone exception was the 19th minute when he threaded Benzema through the middle which resulted in a tame effort by Ronaldo, who should have scored.
Valencia on the Counter
Unai Emery elected to play his usual 4-2-3-1. However, he rested Soldado and Jonas. Valencia elected to attack on the counter. The outlet for the break was Feghouli, who defended the right flank but cut to the middle to get closer to Piatti. The diminutive Piatti was targeted by Feghouli down the left, in the space vacated by Arbeloa and wide of Pepe. Adruiz was the central striker but drifted right to keep the width when the Algerian was in the center.
In the 26th minute, Marcelo gifted a chance with a botched corner clearance. The rebound fell to Ricardo Costa who could only hit the bar with a header from eight yards.
After the initial flurry from the home side, Los Che settled down. The midfield and defence kept compact, leaving less room to defend. Also, they did not give the ball away in their own half, giving away nothing easily.
Valencia’s second best chance of the half occurred when Feghouli got the better of Albiol and teed up Piatti who forced a low save from Casillas.
Real Madrid pushed hard to get the early goal and Valencia were lucky the home side could not take advantage of a few chances. As a response, they opted for the 4-2-3-1 towards the end of the first half. Ronaldo shifted wide right, Benzema to the left and Ozil had the center to himself.
The first half ended with each side having a few chances. The match was played with a lot of intensity, plenty of end to end action and speed.
At the start of the second half, Angel Di Maria came on for Higuain. This change was to try and add width considering Ronaldo played narrowly in the first half and Benzema and Higuain looked to operate from inside the box, leaving all four Madrid attackers in tight spaces. The substitution almost paid off in 27 seconds when the left footed Argentine found Ronaldo but his effort was steered past the far post by Guaita. Ultimately, Di Maria was the focal point of the attack but failed to deliver a killer final ball.
Once again, Valencia struck the post, this time in the 54th minute. Tino Costa blasted the top corner with his left foot from 30 yards. When Valencia had a longer spell of possession, Jordi Alba and Ricardo Costa would look to overlap and get in a cross. Adruiz would then crash into the middle from the right.
Sixty three minutes in, Mathieu and Pablo came on for Piatti and Feghouli. The two starters were the bright spots for Valencia and Emery must have thought they were tiring and wanted to go more defensive. In the 69th minute Ronaldo was put over the top by Benzema but stumbled over his own feet cutting to the right of Victor Ruiz and fell over.
Valencia were ripe to take advantage of the counter after Kaka came in for Kadheira. With five attacking players and nobody tracking back, Madrid were left exposed in pushing for a goal. Mathieu had a shot go just wide and another cross from Jordi Alba led to an Adruiz header just over the bar.
Benzema had two attempts one v one with Guaita after Ronaldo sprung him free in the 79th. His first strike fell back onto his head and was again denied by Guaita.
The final ten minutes were hectic to say the least. Benzema had a chance from a scramble after a free kick, and then Pablo had a one v one with Albiol which resulted in a tame shot. The final kick came from Di Maria who had the winner on a silver platter from Kaka but poorly struck the ball with his left foot directly at the keeper.
The Bernabeu crowd no doubt left disappointed but for the neutral the match was fantastic. Both sides had plenty of chances and perhaps playing on Easter Sunday left high powers angered resulting in a hex in front of goal. Joke aside, the result was fair and Valencia will be happy to be third with the away point. For Real, pressure will be mounting with the lead down to four points and an difficult upcoming Champions League semifinal against Bayern Munich.Follow @icentrocampista