Magic Night in Madrid

As the Olympics came to an end with the official closing ceremonies, players from Valencia and Real Madrid were leaving their respective hotels, heading to Santiago Bernabeu stadium for the second stage of the Super Copa.

As the Olympics came to an end with the official closing ceremonies, players from Valencia and Real Madrid were leaving their respective hotels, heading to Santiago Bernabeu stadium for the second stage of the Super Copa. The champions of La Liga (Real) were set to collide with the Cup’s King (Valencia) and decide who would lift the first trophy of the season. The White Team’s assignment: come back from a 3-2 loss at Valencia in the first game of the Final.

This was the first official competition for the new Valencia manager, Unai Emery, hired after a very successful 2006-07 season in which he led a weaker team, Almeria, to the middle of La Liga standings. In the first game, after trailing by one goal at halftime, Valencia, inspired by international Spanish stars David Villa and David Silva, turned things around in the second half and score three goals to win 3-2 and put the pressure on Madrid going in to the second leg.

Real needed an excellent game before its home crowd to win the title. And sure enough, what we saw last Sunday from the team coached by Bernd Schuster was no less than one of the most epic victories in more than 100 years of the club’s great history.

“At Santiago Bernabeu stadium, there are 11 players –this time only nine- and more than 70,000 fans who, no matter what the score is, have faith that Real will always finish on the winning side”, said radio commentator Paco Gonzalez when the Final was over. 

The first half was a complete disaster for the home team. Real could not find its place on the pitch. Rafael Vander Vaart did not shine, Guti was in the shadows and only some individual plays by Dutch wing Arjen Robben, the best player in the game by far, kept the fans awake. The Madrid supporters even started to boo their own squad.
 
The fans became increasingly agitated when Silva took a low shot from outside the box and scored next to the left post of Casillas’ goal. The scoreboard indicated 0-1, and the aggregate score of the Final was 2-4. Things got worse for Madrid when Vander Vaart, on a questionable call by referee Iturralde Gonzalez, was ejected from the game after kicking Juan Mata. The Dutch midfielder’s debut before his new home crowd was not as he expected. 


Teams play better with fewer players?

Helenio Herrera, one of the greatest managers in soccer’s history, used to say that a team plays better with ten players than with 11. Mr. Herrera, what about with nine players? 
 
Schuster’s men came out steaming in the second half. A great header by Ruud Van Nistelrooy on an excellent cross by Robben, beat Valencia’s German goalkeeper Timo Hildebran, and only the hand of defender Raúl Albiol stopped the ball before surpassing the goal line. Iturralde Gonzalez showed yellow to Albiol resulting in a penalty kick. Van Nistelrooy converted to tie the game at 1-1.

With 40 minutes to play, Real was only a goal away from claiming the title. But 22 minutes later, Van Nistelrooy was shown his second caution of the match, resulting in ejection, and Madrid was down to nine. 

“I believe that, at the end, the red cards benefited us, because they took out the best of the players who still were on the pitch”, said Casillas after the contest.


Heroic deed

Valencia’s advantage was unquestionable. One would think they would simply turn the game into a possession drill, passing from side-to-side putting the ball to sleep. But the unthinkable occurred.  Maybe it was Emery’s inexperience as head coach, maybe the Valencia players were in awe of the 70,000 fans cheering in Bernabeu, but things turned out to be completely the opposite. Real took control of the game.

Despite having nine men on the pitch, Madrid scored three goals in 12 minutes. The last two scores came from huge defensive mistakes by Valencia’s David Albelda, who lost a key ball at midfield, and Alexis, who literally passed the ball to Real’s Argentinean forward Gonzalo Higuain in front of the goal. And the White Team completed one of the most heroic deeds Spanish soccer has ever witnessed.  

“I have been in soccer for many years, and I have never seen something like this, neither as player or coach”, said Schuster at the post-game press conference. “Three goals in only 12 minutes and with nine players is something incredible. It had never happened to me before.”
 
Take into consideration that the heroics came without key players like Van Nistelrooy and Vander Vaart –ejected, Argentinean midfielder Gago –just back from China with an Olympic gold medal around his neck, Robinho –still negotiating with Chelsea to leave Madrid and injured Wesley Sneijder, the victory was no less than a miracle.

Sunday night’s heroes gave 100 percent on the field. Diarra headed strongly a corner kick, hitting Valencia’s horizontal post, and Sergio Ramos hunted the rebound and scored the go-ahead goal. Another Spanish European champion, midfielder Ruben De la Red stole the ball from Albelda and shot smoothly from deep over Hildebrand’s head to record a fantastic goal. Higuain, in typical fashion, came off the bench to score his goal off Alexis’ miscue, dribbling past Hildebran to put the icing on the cake, 4-1.
 
At the end of regulation, Fernando Morientes took advantage of a great pass from Villa, accounting for a goal and provided some added suspense to the extra time. The score after Morientes’ strike was 4-2, and a 4-3 finish would have given Valencia the title with the tiebreaking rules favoring the team that scores more goals away from home. But Real held strong.

If Sunday’s magic night at Bernabeu is any indicator, the White Squad has to be a favorite to win their tenth European title.
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