La Liga - Real win thriller in Valencia
Real Madrid went back on top of La Liga with a thrilling 3-2 win at fellow title-chasers Valencia.
After Barcelona’s 4-0 win at home to Real Zaragoza briefly put the defending champions top on goal difference - and with Los Che knowing a win would put them a point behind the Liga leaders - Madrid almost played the perfect tactical game as goals from Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos put them 2-0 up.
Former Real striker Roberto Soldado pulled one back for the hosts soon after Ramos’s goal, but that was swiftly followed by yet another strike from Cristiano Ronaldo - his 14th in La Liga this season - after Valencia keeper Diego Alves went walkabout.
But the night was not done as Soldado snatched a poacher’s second, setting up a grandstand finale that saw Real hold on - just, as Aritz Aduritz fired straight at Iker Casillas, while Soldado had another sublime finish ruled out for offside and hit the bar in the final seconds, with Gonzalo Higuain accused of handling in the aftermath.
The victory puts Madrid three points clear of Barca, with Valencia in third four points behind Jose Mourinho’s side.
Both sides set out a relatively defensive stall, with Valencia operating with lone ex-Madrid striker Roberto Soldado and the visitors throwing in Lassana Diarra to congest the midfield as Cristiano Ronaldo played more as a winger.
Having been told by boss Unai Emery to “stay at home until Monday” if they were not convinced they could beat Real, Los Che started brilliantly, attacking with vigour but kick off as Tino Costa smacked an effort just wide.
In reality though Valencia had left most of their creative players on the bench, with Aduriz, Pablo Piatti and Jonas - who scored twice for Brazil against Egypt - strangely absent, as if somehow they lacked the hunger for victory even if they did boast the ability.
Real regrouped quickly enough and, with Sami Khedira elected as the attacking element of the three-man central midfield, they started to get forward with regularity as the Germany international half-volleyed wide after a Xabi Alonso free-kick created havoc in the box.
Karim Benzema, preferred to Gonzalo Higuain as the lone striker, drilled a low shot just wide after Ronaldo’s diving header was blocked, while Khedira miscontrolled after Alonso played him through again, Real now in charge of proceedings.
And they took a deserved lead on 20 minutes, thanks to quick thinking from Alonso, who lobbed a free-kick from halfway for Benzema to chase: the France striker, who has scored seven Liga goals all at home this season, broke his away duck with a delicate flick-volley combination that rasped past Diego Alves and in.
Two minutes later Real thought they had doubled the lead when Benzema lashed a ferocious finish into the roof of the net, but the ex-Stuttgart midfielder had strayed offside, while Ronaldo - sporting an early-90s style ‘step’ haircut - had a shot deflected by David Albelda off the post and wide.
Ronaldo, until then relatively quiet by his strutting standards, was finding more space and should have doubled his side’s lead after a deft through-ball from Benzema sent him scuttling clear: Alves was equal to his finish, spreading himself to keep out the attempted chip.
There were no changes from Valencia at half-time but they again started well, with Jeremy Mathieu driving a wicked low ball across the face of ball that somehow flew through the lunging Soldado.
That was about it for a good 20 minutes though as the match descended into a fit of histrionics, diving, shoving and gamesman-type attempts to get players sent off, with Jordi Alba the main culprit as he repeatedly tried to con the unflappable referee into showing Mesut Ozil a second yellow.
Valencia were the greater irritant in that respect, although six of the eight yellow cards were shown to Real players.
The match seemed to be drifting into ennui but, on 72 minutes, a Madrid corner saw Ramos rise imperiously to power a header in off the post to put his team 2-0 up.
It also sparked the hosts into life, with Emery bringing on Pablo Hernandez, who immediately raced through to force a superb save from Casillas - his first of the night. It was in vain though as Soldado drilled home the rebound, showing exceptional technique to meet the spinning ball first-time and guide it through a sea of players from a tight angle.
Within four minutes the two-goal lead had been restored, thanks in part to Alves’s rush of blood but also the brilliance of Ronaldo: the Brazil keeper raced out to clear a loose ball, losing out to Ronaldo who controlled an dragged in the finish from a tight angle.
But Valencia came back again and Soldado again put in a masterful finish, flicking the ball across Casillas and in after a clever low ball from Pablo.
It was 3-2 with seven minutes left and Los Che threw everything at Real to find a leveller, Soldado having one disallowed for offside - a shame for the purist as it was a wonderful first-time finish - and Aduriz firing straight at Casillas with Mathieu begging for the pass.
It was kitchen sink time and the real drama came in the fifth minute of stoppage time as Tino’s corner was rattled against the bar by Soldado, with a prostrate Higuain blocking the rebound effort from the Spain international.
Convinced it was a handball, Valencia surrounded the referee both then and seconds later at the final whistle, but it appeared to strike the Argentina striker on the chest and Madrid clung on for a superb victory.