By Sam Lee
Every silver lining has a cloud, as the old saying nearly goes. And the big cloud over the Spanish capital this week has blown up all the way from the south east coast. Murcia, to be exact, for that is the home of third-tier Real Murcia who this week halted the Real Madrid machine in the Copa del Rey.
After hammering Racing Santander 6-1 last Saturday, a game where Madrid converted six of their first seven shots and Cristiano Ronaldo scored four times between additional strikes from Gonzalo Higuain and Mesut Ozil, los Blancos rolled into town looking to keep up their excellent run that has seen them rise to the summit of la Liga and become hot favorites to lift the title.
It was a strong team that travelled south, too. Iker Casillas, Pepe, Alvaro Arbeloa, Pedro León, Lassana Diarra, Esteban Granero, Sergio Canales, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema (photo) all lined up and Sergio Ramos and Rual Albiol returned from injury. It may not be the strongest Madrid starting 11, but it is certainly no disgrace to the club’s famous name.
Against a spirited and ultra-defensive Murcia outfit, Madrid could only muster a 0-0 draw.
Last year, of course, Madrid crashed out over two legs to lowly Alcorcon, and manager Jose Mourinho was in no mood to witness a repeat performance on his watch.
“If last year’s situation repeats itself, I will cross those who play off my list because they will be dead to me,” the Portuguese coach said before the match.
He obviously didn’t expect such a result, or to be put into that position, so instead he chose to sympathise with his players after the stalemate.
“The players tried hard enough to win. They didn’t because the Murcia goalkeeper was fantastic.”
He would have been forgiven for dusting off an original Mourinho phrase and accusing Murcia of parking the team bus in front of their goal, just as he did when Tottenham Hotspur sat on the edge of their area against Chelsea when he was at the helm at Stamford Bridge, but instead he played down the result as a minor blip.
And well he might. After all, it’s a two-legged cup tie and Murcia will have to win at the Bernabeu in early November if they are to knock Madrid out, and seemingly end the careers of several of their players in the process.
Yet one Madrid career that may already be coming to an end is that of Karim Benzema. The ex-Lyon striker, signed as part of a new wave of Galacticos last summer, has not shone as well as hoped. Or at all, really.
His problem is akin to that of Dimitar Berbatov at Manchester United; if he’s scoring goals then he’s looking classy and all is well, if he’s not, then he’s lazy. Such is the demeanour of Benzema, it doesn’t look as if he’s going out of his way to force himself ahead of Higuain in the pecking order.
Mourinho insists that Benzema only finds himself out of the team because of the blistering form of Higuain, but every time he is given a chance, and every time he doesn’t take it, the feelings of discontent grow.
Higuain was vilified in the Madrid press last season for keeping their new superstar Benzema out of the team, but the Argentine’s continued good form, coupled with Benzema’s perceived lack of effort and certain lack of goals, has seen the likes of Marca and AS turn their backs on the Frenchman.
After the stalemate in Murcia, Marca announced the end of Benzema’s tenure in Madrid. “Finished” they cried, after he failed to hit the back of the net in his biggest chance yet.
It is unlikely he will be given another one soon.
This weekend Madrid are back in the south-east to face the unpredictable Hercules of Alicante, who, thanks solely to the goals of David Trezeguet and Nelson Valdes, sit 13th in the table having beaten Barcelona and Sevilla, but done pretty poorly against everybody else.
Having been brought down to Earth with an almighty bump on Tuesday night, and wary of the threat Hercules pose against the division’s bigger teams, Mourinho will not be taking any chances with his starting 11 and Benzema will almost certainly take his place on the bench.
Marcelo, Ricardo Carvalho, Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil and that man Higuain will all be recalled to the ranks with Mourinho looking to maintain the league rhythm that has amassed 16 goals in just three games. Not to mention picking up another win to keep Barcelona at bay.
Aside from their only two goalscorers Trezeguet and Valdes, Hercules have been well-served by the on-loan Madrid man Royston Drenthe. But, due to a clause in the loan agreement, Mourinho will not have to worry about danger of one of his own players damaging his title aspirations. That is unless somebody at the club pays Madrid the €2m that is required to negate that clause.
A final thought: the game offers Ronaldo the opportunity to reach double figures for the month. If the ex-Manchester United man scores on Saturday night he will have notched up 10 goals this October alone, the same amount Benzema has managed in his entire Madrid career.