FOX Soccer Exclusive
Real passes first test without CR7
Real Madrid fans had planned Wednesday’s Champions League Group B game as an homage to their hero Cristiano Ronaldo, but it was oft-maligned right-back Alvaro Arbeloa who was Los Blancos’ talisman in a strange 4-1 win over Galatasaray. The win locked up Madrid’s place in the round of 16 and esured they will win their group as well.
After a pregame rally in support of Ronaldo’s Ballon d’Or chances, and a pretty dull first half an hour -- the game sparked to life with the harsh sending off of Sergio Ramos. Gareth Bale soon put the 10 men ahead with a fine free kick, only for Umut Bulut to almost immediately equalize.
The second half was all Arbeloa’s, with the defender -- whistled in this stadium just last month by fans dismissive of his attacking skills -- scoring only his second Champions League goal and setting up the clinching third for Angel di Maria. By then a sorry Galatasaray -- which began the game needing the points more than Madrid -- was a mess, and Isco completed the scoring by waltzing through its defense to net a neat solo effort.
The attention had all been on Ronaldo pregame. Madrid supporters group leaders handed out 45,000 cardboard Cristiano masks, with the instructions, “put on this mask at the start of game, in minutes 7, 77 and whenever Cristiano does something good or scores a goal.” The idea was to show support for their man’s Ballon d’Or claims, and disappointment at FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s allegedly “anti-Ronaldo” attitude.
The sentiment was clear, but the protest would have worked better had Ronaldo actually been able to play, but he was not due to a thigh injury, and his absence seemed to hang over the opening stages of the game. With Madrid’s fans and players knowing they were already all but through, and coach Carlo Ancelotti fielding an experimental midfield and attack with an average age of just over 22 years -- the home side began tentatively.
Of the youngsters midfielder Casemiro was the liveliest, with some stirring tackles and precise passing which impressed the home fans, but it really took half an hour for the game to come to life when Scottish referee William Cullum decided to send off Ramos for a professional foul on Gala attacker Umut Bulut. It was the 17th red card of Ramos’ Madrid career -- and probably the harshest, as Bulut made a lot of some very minor contact.
That looked to put Roberto Mancini’s visitors in driving seat, but Bale had other ideas. Given free kick duties in Ronaldo’s absence, the Welsh winger curled a super effort to the net from fully 35 yards. In the stands the real Ronaldo allowed himself a wry smile.
But it was 1-1 almost straight away. With Wesley Sneijder missing Didier Drogba turned provider with a super turn and pass behind a static Pepe for Bulut to run onto and knock the ball to the net. Again Madrid's defending left a lot to be desired.
The Turkish champions began the second half as if having decided to really go for it against 10 not over motivated men -- and had what could have been a second goal ruled out for offside. But then Arbeloa intervened -- first cleverly converting a fine cross from his fellow fullback Marcelo for a first goal since November 2010, and then laying on the second with a nice tee-up for di Maria.
Inbetween Arbeloa -- usually a stock defender but now raiding forward like Brazilian legend Cafu -- was booked for a dive in the Galatasaray area by Collum, who is known in Scotland as a ref who enjoys the spotlight. Sneijder, who has an adductor injury issue, was finally introduced, and home keeper Iker Casillas tipped over a Drogba header, but nobody really believed the result was in doubt. Gala’s lethargy was hard to understand, especially considering they needed the points so much more than Madrid.
Surely Mancini knew that Juventus were on their way to a 3-1 win at home to Copenhagen, but neither he nor his players could do anything to turn the game around. Juve are now second in Group B and only need a draw to ensure qualification for the last 16 when the two teams meet in Istanbul in their final group game on Dec. 10.
On 77 minutes, with Arbeloa safely back in defense, the cardboard Cristiano masks got their final showing. There were also a few ripples of chants from fans -- and he responded with a wave from his spot in the posh seats. The Portugese should be well over his current issues by next February, and may have another Ballon d'Or on his shelf, when the real Champions League stuff starts again for Madrid.
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