Lack of pressure keeps Real Madrid top of La Liga


Madrid (AFP) – Real Madrid have been allowed to retain a commanding lead at the top of La Liga, despite a dip in form that has left nerves stinging about another second half of the season under Carlo Ancelotti.

Ancelotti’s first spell in charge of Madrid ended in 2015 after a campaign in which Madrid won 22 consecutive matches before Christmas only to fall from January, five defeats seeing them propelled to the title by Barcelona.

But Madrid look unlikely to face such fierce opposition this term, with Barca and Atletico Madrid both dropping out to finish in the top four and their main challengers Sevilla now stalling.

Madrid, who play Rayo Vallecano on Saturday, went 13 wins from 15 unbeaten matches from October to December but have been treading water since the start of the year, with just three wins in their last six league matches.

A shock away defeat at Getafe was followed by draws at Elche and Villarreal while a narrow victory over Granada, decided by a long-range shot from Marco Asensio, heightened concerns over a freezing attack.

Karim Benzema’s absence was a huge below as the Frenchman missed three games with a hamstring injury before being sent off to play in the first leg loss to Paris Saint Germain in the Champions League last week .

And after a glittering few months, Vinicius Junior has also hit a plateau. The Brazilian has netted 16 goals this season but netted just one in the last six weeks, in the 3-0 win over Alaves on Saturday.

The result flattered Madrid, who were whistled at half-time by their own fans at the Santiago Bernabeu and might have felt even more uncomfortable had the tension not been broken by another stunning strike from Asensio.

Vinicius and Benzema added sparkle with goals in the 80th and 90th minutes.

“What the fans thought, we agreed,” Ancelotti said after that game. “No one in the dressing room was happy with that first half.”

Many suspect fatigue is a factor in Madrid’s slowdown, accusing Ancelotti of not rotating his squad and relying too much on the same starting line-up, which includes veterans like Benzema, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro .

After a grueling outing in Paris last week when Madrid went most of the night without the ball, Ancelotti made just one change against Alaves, with Fede Valverde replacing Kroos in midfield. Casemiro, who looked like he needed a rest, was in particularly bad shape.

Still, 14 points won from a possible 24 in La Liga was still enough to provide a six-point lead, which was extended last weekend after Espanyol held Sevilla.

That draw at Cornella was Sevilla’s fourth in their last five matches, all against sides outside the league’s top eight.

Sevilla are well organized and solid defensively, but coach Julen Lopetegui has been criticized for being too cautious against lesser opponents.

They have also suffered numerous injuries while Anthony Martial, on loan from Manchester United, is yet to catch fire.

The result is a complete lack of pressure on Real Madrid, who still have to visit Sevilla and Atletico Madrid during the break-in period, but could have a heavy enough cushion that these games won’t be decisive.

Sevilla take on Real Betis on Sunday, with third-placed Betis able to move within two points of their city rivals with victory in the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan derby.

Atletico will also be under pressure when they play at home to Celta Vigo on Saturday, hoping to maintain some momentum with their encouraging display against Manchester United in midweek.

Barcelona, ​​who are level on points with Atletico but have one game less, host Athletic Club while Villarreal, who are three points adrift in sixth, face Espanyol earlier on Sunday.

Timetable (GMT)

Friday

Levante v Elche (2000)

Saturday

Mallorca v Valencia (1300), Getafe v Alaves (1515), Rayo Vallecano v Real Madrid (1730), Atletico Madrid v Celta Vigo (2000)

Sunday

Villarreal v Espanyol (1300), Sevilla v Real Betis (1515), Real Sociedad v Osasuna (1730), Barcelona v Athletic Club (2000)

Monday

Granada v Cadiz (2000)

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