Real Baled out of another 'crisis' but the clásico beckons


* A week which began badly for Real Madrid as Barcelona leapfrogged them in the league got worse as they lost 4-3 at home to Schalke in the Champions League, qualifying but with a chorus of boos and press opprobrium.


Fans turning up at the Bernabeu on Wednesday expecting a cakewalk after Real's comfortable 2-0 away win in Gelsenkirchen instead had to endure a rollercoaster ride to the next round and the awkward spectacle of former merengue Klaas-Jan Huntelaar bagging a brace and almost knocking out his former employers.

Skipper Iker Casillas tried to round up his shattered troops at the final whistle for a centre-circle mea culpa to the fans but Cristiano Ronaldo refused to take part and the boos rang out anyway.

Cries for Costa Rican custodian Keylor Navas to be fast-tracked into the first team returned as Casillas failed to stop three goals, but the veteran goalkeeper also kept his club alive in the competition with a crucial late save.

Carlo Ancelotti announced Navas would start at home to Levante but that Casillas would return for next week's crunch clásico with Barcelona, a game which could decide the title.

Opinion polls showed 56% of Real fans blamed the players, 27% Ancelotti and 17% owner Florentino Perez for the defeat and subsequent 'crisis'.

Three wins, three losses and a draw in their last seven games is not the stuff champions are made of, and Barça's stunning show at Manchester City and bypassing of Real could not have come at a worse time for Los Merengues.

Of the players, few came away with much credit against Schalke although Karim Benzema's sole strike and Ronaldo's two goals were of top quality, while Toni Kroos ran his socks off.

Ancelotti was slated once more for his over-reliance on 4-4-2 as well as recalling the soon-to-be-sold Sami Khedira only to substitute him on the hour anyway, while expensive recruits Illarra (€39 million) and Lucas Silva (€14 million) warmed the bench.

The much-vaunted 'BBC' Real's attacking trio of Gareth Bale, Benzema and Cristiano, currently compares unfavourably with Barcelona's Messi, Neymar and Suarez (MSN?) and should really be renamed the BC given Bale's barren spell.

Until Sunday night, Bale had failed to score in the last nine games and had provided only one assist, a meagre return for the world's most costly footballer.

While the Bernabeu's whistling of the Welshman has seemed a little cruel, looking at those stats they might have had a point. That said, Bale's ratio of shots to goals this season is better than last - 15% v 21%, as is his passing accuracy - 79% v 76%.

Ancelotti's system is perhaps the reason. The Italian insists on a 4-3-3 going forward with Bale on the right of the BBC trident, but this shape is not making the most of Bale's thoroughbred speed.

His most memorable goals, such as against Barcelona in last year's Copa del Rey final, or for Tottenham against Inter in the Champions League, have come from the left flank when he has yards of grass ahead of him on the counter-attack.

Too often this season he has been marooned around the halfway line on the right and close-marked, preventing him from making his buccaneering charges, but with CR7 a fixture on the left this is not about to change soon.

Ancelotti also wants Bale to drop back into midfield when Real lose the ball to form a 4-4-2, but Bale has been getting a lot of stick for not tracking back enough, adding fuel to the gripes that he has been selfish in attack.

Maybe he has had a few arachnophobic encounters in the Spanish capital, as he admitted last week apart from playing badly that his greatest fear was spiders.

Club owner Perez reminded hacks how good an opening season Bale had enjoyed last year and that other big clubs still want to buy him. Perez is inevitably a controversial figure given the power he wields and a sector of Real support, including the tabloid Marca, seem to be poking him by slating Bale's waning contribution to 'the cause'.

The Schalke defeat put a real dampener on Real's week, while over in Catalonia Neymar could chuckle to journalists how close the holders had been to the Champions League exit door.

Outside the Bernabeu, fans chanted for Jose Mourinho no less to return. Ronaldo meanwhile, shaking his head as he left the field, has vowed not to speak to journalists for the rest of the season, although they will not be missing much to be honest.

* As Barcelona won comfortably with Messi on fire again, bagging a brace in a 2-0 win at Eibar, the gap at the top grew to four points for 24 hours, upping the pressure on Real to make amends in the final game of the week.

With a cloud of gloom and recrimination hanging over the Bernabeu, Real took the field against Levante for the 9 pm Sunday kick-off. Then as if it had been scripted, Bale bounced back with two first-half goals to turn the tide of despair and bring his club back to within a point of Barça ahead of next week's showdown.

Bale celebrated his first by putting his hands over his ears and his second by kicking the corner flag, both entertaining and deserved, but equally, proof that the constant criticism had got through to him. Perhaps it might have been better to have celebrated as normal and ignored the boo-boys.

As in politics, a week is indeed a long time in football, or in Real's case, four days. As tragedy turned to triumph, so again the wheel of fate could turn this coming Sunday at the second clásico of the season.

With only a point separating Spain's big two, there is little Ancelotti or his opposite number Luis Enrique can do to stop the press turning this into the do-or-die title decider.

* Valencia moved past Atletico Madrid into third after beating Deportivo la Coruna 2-0 on Friday night, while Los Colchoneros could only draw 0-0 at Espanyol on Saturday, leaving their title defence looking dead in the water.

Diego Simeone's side are now nine points behind leaders Barcelona with eleven games to go and are looking nervously over their shoulder at Sevilla, who sit only four points behind in the race for the fourth Champions League spot having downed Elche 3-0 at the weekend.

* At the foot of La Liga, Cordoba stay bottom with Granada in 19th, but Levante slipped into the drop zone on goal difference after Almeria won a point at home to Villareal.

* David Moyes' Real Sociedad finally won their first away game of the season in the Monday night game, 1-0 at Getafe to go tenth. The Basques were the only La Liga team not to have triumphed on the road this season.

* Leo Messi's double against Eibar was his 31st & 32nd league goals of the season, two ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo in the race to become this season's pichichi. Neymar is third on 17.

* In the Europa League's Round of 16 all-Spanish tie, Sevilla shell-shocked Villareal at their El Madrigal home, winning 3-1.

Vitolo found the net for the visitors after only 15 seconds, the fastest strike in Europa League history and Villareal hit the woodwork from their first advance in the second minute, setting up a mouthwatering contest.

The home side poured forward in search of an equalizer but fell behind again in the 26th when Stephane Mbia scored against the run of play.

Luciano Vietto scrambled in a goal for Villareal shortly after the break to keep the tie alive but Kevin Gameiro volleyed in a third for Sevilla two minutes later, a lead they did not surrender for the remaining 40 minutes.

Villareal now have a huge task in the return leg at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan in a week's time. The Yellow Submarine's season is suddenly sinking fast following this defeat and elimination from the Copa del Rey.

* Atletico will try to claw back their 1-0 deficit at home to Bayer Leverkusen on Tuesday in the Champions League, while Barcelona, 2-1 up from the first leg, will hope to seal the deal at home to Manchester City on Wednesday. Chelsea's three Spaniards Cesar Azpilicueta, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas are out of the Champions League after PSG beat the Blues on away goals.

* Real Madrid look set to buy River Plate's Argentina U-20 goalkeeper Augusto Batalla in the summer on a year's loan with an option to buy, making the retirement of Iker Casillas and promotion of Keylor Navas more likely. Real are also said to be keen on Bayern Munich's

* Pepe Reina made his debut for Bayern Munich in their 4-0 win at Werder Bremen, becoming the first goalkeeper to have played in Europe's four major leagues - the Bundesliga, La Liga, Premier League and Serie A.

* This Friday Vicente del Bosque names his 23-man squad for Spain's upcoming Euro 2016 qualifier in Seville against Ukraine (27th March), and the friendly with the Netherlands in Amsterdam four days later. La Roja are currently second in Group C, three points behind Slovakia.

* Alex Ferguson watched Real's loss to Schalke sat alongside super-agent Jorge Mendes, before having dinner with his prize possession Cristiano Ronaldo.

After CR7's angry exit from the field and Fergie's long relationship with the player, it was surprising the press did not make more of the potential for Man Utd to persuade their former star to return in glory to Old Trafford. Ronaldo might be the face of Real and an untouchable demigod at the Bernabeu, but stranger things have happened.

* The Neymar transfer controversy stepped up a gear this week as the court judge announced proceedings will go ahead against club president Maria Bartomeu, ex-president Sandro Rosell and the club itself over the creative accounting surrounding the Brazilian's transfer from Santos in 2013.

Barca are accused of tax evasion worth €9 million on the €42 million the club paid to his parents but did not disclose to the inland revenue. If either man is convicted of defrauding the treasury they could face a jail term of between two and six years.

Santos' ex-president Luis Alvaro de Oliveira Ribeiro told ESPN last summer that Neymar's dad, who owns a yacht and holiday homes on the Brazilian coast, was "a liar" who "only thinks about money."

According to Ribeiro, Barcelona's €90 transfer fee included the expenses Santos had forked out for Neymar Sr such as flights, food and drink and "an orgy in the Piccadilly Hotel in London."

"He never paid for a coffee," claimed Ribeiro. "I paid for the 200 coffees he drank with me."

* Will Man U's Spanish custodian David De Gea be heading back to La Liga because of his ditsy other half?

De Gea has been in excellent form for the Red Devils so much so Roy Keane called him the best goalkeeper in the world last week, but his girlfriend of five years Edurne Garcia said his city of work does not impress her much.

"I've been told Manchester is uglier than the back of a fridge," she told Spanish TV. "It's not very nice, that's for sure."

Garcia is singing for Spain in the Eurovision Song Contest in May. Looks like she'll get nul points from the Northwest of England's tele-voting.

THIS WEEK'S BIG GAMES (kick-off times GMT)

Tues 17th Mar 
Champions League: ATLETICO MADRID (0) v (1) BAYER LEVERKUSEN 19:45

Weds 18th Mar
Champions League: BARCELONA (2) v (1) MANCHESTER CITY 19:45

Thu 19th Mar
Europa League: SEVILLA (3) v (1) VILLAREAL 19:05

Fri 20th Mar
La Liga: ELCHE v VALENCIA 19:45

Sat 21st Mar

Sun 22nd Mar

Real Baled out.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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