Cristiano Ronaldo saves point for Real vs. Atletico

Cristiano Ronaldo is congratulated by teammate Gareth Bale after scoring against Atletico Madrid.

PAUL HANNA/Action Images / Reuters

MADRID — A fired-up Atletico Madrid was the better team for most of Sunday’s Spanish capital ‘derbi’ at the Estadio Vicente Calderon, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s late equalizer saved Real Madrid and kept his side atop the La Liga standings. 

Madrid had shocked the crowd when Karim Benzema ghosted in to give them an early lead before many had settled in their seats, but Atletico regrouped and battled back, with two superbly hit strikes from Koke and Gabi having it ahead by half-time.

The home side were on top for long spells, and were already cursing the performance of referee Carlos Delgado Ferreira – and some wayward finishing by Diego Costa — before Ronaldo slammed in a late equalizer his team did not really deserve.

Diego Simeone’s spiky Atletico side had gone for Madrid right from the kick-off, looking for a high-tempo start to upset its snootier neighbors. But that was for naught when Madrid worked a short-corner, with Atletico’s defense stock-still, and Angel Di Maria’s cross was poked home by an unmarked Benzema on just three minutes.

The home fans were stunned into silence for a few seconds, but the barrage of whistles and roars soon restarted when ref Delgado Ferreira waved away what looked an Atletico penalty for a trip by Sergio Ramos on Diego Costa inside the area. Down on the pitch Arda Turan was lucky not to be sent off for confronting the official amid enraged Rojiblanco protests.


Atletico kept coming, with the frantic pace suiting its scrappers, and just before the half-hour mark it was 1-1. The equalizer was all about Arda’s composure and vision as he drew the defense before playing a clever reverse ball, and then the calmness and precision of Koke who rammed his shot low across Madrid keeper Diego Lopez to the net.

With the action this furious little was seen of Gareth Bale or Ronaldo, apart from an apparent dive from the Portuguese which drew the scorn of the home crowd. Diego Godin and Pepe both saw yellow after a scuffle before a corner, with the Blancos center-back’s attempt to con the official pretty laughable. It was tempting to wonder what Hollywood’s Tim Robbins [one in the 55,000 capacity crowd] was making of it all.

Just as everyone was gasping for the break, Atletico hit the front with an absolute screamer from captain Gabi, whose 35-yarder flew past Lopez and almost burst the Madrid net. Halftime saw Madrid supporters wondering if the benched Iker Casillas might have done better, while the home fans were in buoyant mood.

With no thought of sitting back to protect its advantage, Simeone’s fired up men went on the attack from the start of the second 45. Costa [once more away from his markers Ramos and Pepe] had a chance for 3-1, but rushed his shot when straight through on goal, bringing hands to heads all around the Calderon. Hearts were then in mouths as Ronaldo stood over a 20 yard free, with cheers ringing out when the Portuguese struck the ball straight into the wall.

Costa and Benzema both came close as the pace kept up and the chances kept coming. The referee was again the focus of attention [and abuse] as he decided Costa had dived, when most inside the ground had seen an Alvaro Arbeloa foul and a penalty for Atletico. The home bench was incensed, and assistant coach German Burgos was red carded for bringing his angry protests onto the pitch.

But still there was a game to be played. Carlo Ancelotti’s substitutes seemed baffling, with both fullbacks replaced, and Isco on for a tiring Di Maria. Equally strange was seeing Ronaldo head wide from six yards with the goal gaping as Atletico started to run out of gas. And CR7 was not to be denied, firing in after home midfielder Mario Suarez fluffed a clearance.

The equalizer was unfair on Atletico, which was the better side. Simeone’s team has stumbled in La Liga of late, with injuries and tiredness taking a toll. But it once again showed that over 90 minutes it can match any team in European football. Costa, Gabi, Miranda, Felipe Luis and many others were all outstanding. Even still it remains three points behind in the table.

Despite the win Ancelotti will face plenty of questions. His substitutions were strange, and it was individual brilliance, not tactics, which brought the draw. Madrid’s much-praised three man midfield, which had seen it roll over weaker opposition in recent weeks, might need another rethink ahead of big Champions League games and the looming Liga clash with Barcelona. But its unbeaten run has stretched to 28 matches, and it remains clear – just about – atop the Spanish standings.