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Real advances to Copa del Rey final
A pair of early penalties from Cristiano Ronaldo settled any doubt -- and Madrid progressed 5-0 on aggregate, with the main work done in last week's first leg at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.
Carlo Ancelotti's side are now set to face Barcelona in a Copa Clasico final in Easter week, unless the Catalan side throws away a 2-0 lead in its semifinal return game on Wednesday at Real Sociedad.
Diego Simeone said before the match that “nothing is impossible in football” but hopes of an unlikely comeback among Atletico fans were hit when the Argentine coach chose a side containing only three of his usual preferred starting XI. Ancelotti also rotated his team, but from a position of strength, and the players the Blancos boss could turn to included 30 million euro attacker Isco Alcorcon, €38 million midfielder Asier Illarramendi and fit-again France international Raphael Varane. Also back in the starting lineup (as his current suspension only counts in La Liga) was a rested and hungry-looking Cristiano Ronaldo.
Atletico's Raul Garcia -- starting up front in place of the suspended Diego Costa -- did get the home fans going with an early crunching challenge on Sergio Ramos. But any last dreams were extinguished when Ronaldo was tripped inside the area by 19-year-old Atletico reserve right back Javier Manquillo inside four minutes. The Portuguese picked himself up to convert the spot kick for an away goal, leaving Atletico needing five to progress.
To their credit the 50,000 home fans inside the Calderon kept up a decent level of noise. The crowd wanted to at least win this game, if not the tie. And when Garcia rattled Iker Casillas' post from 20 yards there seemed at least a chance of that. But soon Gareth Bale tricked stand-in left back Emiliano Insua, and was hacked down, giving Ronaldo the chance to gleefully add his second penalty of the night and make it 5-0 on aggregate.
"After losing, one is never happy," Simeone said after Atletico's defeat. "This group of players are that way, it's normal. We wanted to get to win the cup again, but it's just the semifinals this year. We can always can do better but I think today was not bad. We played and competed how we wanted to, which was to compete with Real Madrid well."
Even the most die-hard Colchonero supporter at that point -- less than 20 minutes in -- knew it was all over. Many now concentrated on directing (not very complementary) songs and chants towards supposed villains Alvaro Arbeloa, Casillas and -- of course -- Madrid's number seven, who drew particular ire after he challenged Manquillo for a high ball.
The youngster landed very awkwardly on his neck and was taken to hospital as a precaution. Ronaldo was perhaps harshly booked, and certainly did not deserve to be hit on the head by a yellow cigarette lighter thrown from the stand as he left the pitch at halftime.
Atletico's players have had a poor two games, but some of its supporters behavior has been much worse -- especially the racist chants directed towards Madrid left back Marcelo last week at the Bernabeu.
It was difficult to pick out any stand-out performers on the pitch here either -- although Garcia kept trying for the home side, while Varane looked back to his classy best in defense for the visitors. Casillas kept up his record of not conceding a goal through all eight Copa games this season -- keeping alert after a quiet night to make a reflex stop from Jose Sosa late on.
Isco, given a rare chance to impress out of position as a central striker, tried hard but looked woefully short of confidence. Bale was mostly quiet on the right wing, but got another useful 90 minutes under his belt.
For Atletico this was a first home defeat of the season, and a third consecutive reverse. The Copa exit will hurt, but Simeone can remind his men that they are still joint top of La Liga and have UEFA Champions League last 16 ties with AC Milan looming. Fortunately for its cause key men David Villa and Thibaut Courtois should be back for the European first leg at San Siro next Wednesday, when Costa will be available too.
Madrid's greater hunger and intensity over both legs -- shown both in the performances of the players on the pitch and the selection decisions of both coaches -- suggests the Copa was more a priority for Ancelotti than Simeone. The Italian -- a Cup winner as a coach in his home country and England in the past -- has now reached a final in his first season in Spain.
"We want to win all competitions. It is true that this is the least important competition for us — we have the Champions League and La Liga — but a final is always a great thing for the team," said Ancelotti after the match.
And his side -- with 11 wins and a draw from their 12 games in 2014, look nicely tuned up just as its La Liga and Champions League campaigns are getting serious.
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