Real Madrid’s past weekend a series of ups and downs

The weekend began with the celebration of a 16-year-old, a prodigy with aspirations to become one of soccer’s greats, joining the league leaders. No sooner had Martin Odegaard, the precocious Norwegian, joined La Liga, and settled into his new, daunting life as a Real Madrid starlet than he watched the sport’s official number one player, Cristiano Ronaldo, start behaving like petulant teenager.

To Odegaard, signed by Madrid from Stromsgodset ahead of interest from heavyweight clubs in England, Germany and elsewhere in Spain, watching the weekend’s events unfold may have seemed slightly puzzling. His new club won, but only just scraped the three points they needed to preserve their leadership of the league, away at lowly Cordoba. It was a patchy display, disfigured by the red card received by Ronaldo. Barcelona, meanwhile, walloped Elche, away, in what became an exhibition of Lionel Messi’s brilliance and his thrilling partnership with Neymar.

Atletico, third, won their capital derby against Rayo Vallecano, and by the time the joust between Valencia and Sevilla, with fourth place directly at stake, had been resolved in Valencia’s favour, 3-1, the teenaged Odegaard might have wondered if he made the right decision about where to spend the key years of his development. Of the top five clubs in action, Real Madrid had been the least impressive.

Odegaard is a gifted dribbler, nimble and mature, which is why Madrid were prepared to offer him a salary, starting only five weeks after his 16th birthday, that, with bonuses, could pay him more than $100,000 a week. He will train with the first team, but initially play mostly with Castilla, the junior side who are top of their section of Spain’s regionalized third division. Up against tough, weathered and older professionals, that will be educative.

How tough is La Liga? Odegaard is bound to be asking himself. By late on Sunday, his question might have been rephrased: How easy is it to win a penalty in Spanish football? Real Madrid’s seniors were involved in a match that had two. At Valencia versus Sevilla, three were awarded within the first 40 minutes. Messi scored one of Barcelona’s six goals against Elche from the penalty spot.

LA LIGA RESULTS

Ronaldo would certainly have taken the late penalty that saved Madrid’s afternoon had he still been on the pitch when Cordoba’s Fede Cartabia blocked a Gareth Bale shot with his hand. Eighty-nine minutes had passed, Bale scored the kick to make it 2-1 to the visitors. Ronaldo by then sat in the dressing-room, sent off after 83 minutes, having aimed a kick, off the ball, at an opponent, Edimar. He appeared to push the player in the same altercation.

It had been unhappy day all round for the holder of the Balon D’Or, the FIFA World Player of the Year, the Ronaldo who had been cited by the boy Odegaard at his presentation two days earlier as the best possible mentor for an aspiring young professional. Against Cordoba, Ronaldo seemed detached, unable to impose himself on Madrid’s game tactically or individually.

The rash show of petulance towards Edimar had not been his worst aggression, either. Earlier, he appeared to throw a punch at Jose Angel Crespo. The referee had not seen it. Ronaldo’s red card for the Edimar kick, for which the Portuguese apologised afterwards, may yet cost him a suspension long enough to take in the derby at Atletico on February 7th, as well as exclude him from the testing game against Sevilla three days before that.

Ronaldo left the field to jeers and mocking chants of “Siiiiii!”, “Yessss!”, in imitation of the exclamation he himself had made on hearing the result of the Balon D’Or vote in his favour at the FIFA gala for the World Player of 2014 earlier this month. His response? A gesture to the Cordoba crowd that pointed out the emblem on his Madrid jersey that marks the club as the current FIFA Club World Cup champions.

With a game in hand – the fixture against Sevilla – Madrid maintain a significant advantage over their closet chasers, though the gathering fluency of Messi and Neymar for Barcelona is ominous. Barca left Luis Suarez, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets out of their XI at Elche, and strolled. On Wednesday night, in the second leg of their Copa del Rey quarter-final against Atletico, those three players can anticipate a recall. Barcelona lead that tie 1-0 after 90 minutes and will look at progress as a significant step towards a first major prize since 2013.

Real are already out of the Copa. But there is one area where they can top Barcelona easily: Transfers. Barcelona are currently banned from signing new players. Madrid have just captured Odegaard, amid great fanfare, and on Monday will present Lucas Silva, the 21-year-old Brazilian midfielder from Cruzeiro, as their newest acquisition. He will do them at least one good service straight away, by taking local media attention away from Ronaldo’s episode of bad temper.