There were times when Real Madrid did not play very well during its Spanish-record, 40-match unbeaten run; some games where it was reliant on the individual brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo or Gareth Bale to get a result. So there was some irony to the performance that ended the eight-month run; in Sunday's 2-1 defeat at second-place Sevilla, Real Madrid played some its best football of the 41 games. And still, it was not enough.
What an advertisement for La Liga this was; the third time these two sides had met in 10 days, after Real Madrid edged through the Copa del Rey quarterfinal thanks to Karim Benzema's equalizer at the death and Sergio Ramos’s chipped Panenka penalty the preceded it in their midweek second leg. Ramos began his career at Sevilla and was jeered furiously every time he touched the ball only to have the final word.
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In a sign of how seriously Zinedine Zidane was taking the threat of Sevilla in the league–only one point behind the top now–the Madrid coach played a three-man defense for the first time, in the hope of matching Jorge Sampaoli’s system. Sampaoli, meanwhile, went for four at the back.
The manner in which Madrid’s run ended could not have been more dramatic. After going ahead through Ronaldo’s penalty midway through the second half, the visitor looked like it would hold. Indeed, Ronaldo almost broke away for a second before he was halted by the excellent Steven N’Zonzi, a player remarkably overlooked for the France national team and likely to leave Sevilla–if not this month, then in summer.
The equalizer came from a source close to home: Ramos, Madrid’s hero in midweek and so often its late-goal savior, headed into his own net with five minutes left. It was only his second own goal in 685 appearances. In true Sampaoli style, Sevilla pushed for the win and January signing Stevan Jovetic made it two goals in two games (both against Real Madrid) when his last-minute shot flew past Keylor Navas to seal a dramatic win.
Two points now separate the top three. Barcelona is in third after a 5-0 win over Las Palmas. Zidane was perhaps a bit optimistic after the game, but he could have no complaints. Madrid has pushed its luck at times over this run, and it simply ran out.
Sevilla, on the other hand, is a genuine title contender. Just as Diego Simeone breathed life into Atletico Madrid, so has his fellow Argentine Sampaoli hauled Sevilla into contention. This will only strengthen speculation that Barcelona will want him as its coach next season. But before then, Sampaoli is on the brink of something special in Seville.