Only in La Liga's two-horse race are ties treated as sobering losses.
The concept of "dropping points"—a tie rewards the team with one point as opposed to three—is monumentally important in a title battle between two sides, Real Madrid and Barcelona, that rarely do anything but win.
Sunday's 1-1 stalemate with Valencia showed that Madrid are still a ways off from their scintillating form of last season, where goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema were easy to come by.
And yet it was the second tie in as many games for the visiting side at the Santiago Bernabeu. Valencia are no slouch, of course—but they finished nearly 40 points off Madrid in the 2011-2012 season.
15 minutes into the contest it seemed as if Los Blancos were cruising to an easy victory. Gonzalo Higuain had put the home side up by torching the ball past Valencia keeper Diego Alves, who had bravely withstood the first two attempts in a one-on-one.
It was a sign of things to come certainly, but not in the way Madrid fans were expecting. The Brazilian shot-stopper was excellent all night, with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria, and Higuain continually frustrated by the visiting keeper's form.
On the other hand, Iker Casillas appeared strong early on, but was undone by hard luck. A Valencia corner saw the Madrid captain knocked to the ground through friendly fire with Pepe, allowing Jonas a free header into the vacant goal.
Pepe left the game with concussion-like symptoms after the collision. Casillas, meanwhile, soldiered his way through the rest of the contest, never looking fully recovered.
Real Madrid finished the game pushing heavily for the victory, yet Valencia were threatening throughout on the counter as Jose Mourinho gambled with his substitutions (Benzema for Lassana Diarra being a notable example).
Certainly, it's too early to panic in the Spanish capital with only one game into the 2012-2013 La Liga season. But I think there are three important points that must be raised.
- Madrid are very thin at holding midfield. As I've said before, Luka Modric is a must-buy for Los Blancos. Lassana Diarra and Esteban Granero are very good players, but outside of Sami Khedira Madrid there is a lack of quality at holding midfield. Considering that Madrid will compete strongly on three fronts this season—La Liga, Copa del Rey, and Champions League—it should be of uttermost importance for Mourinho to complete this signing. (Recent rumors are that talks have stalled.)
- Madrid need a Plan B. Last season, Real Madrid could win games where they were not playing up to par because the team was bigger, stronger and faster than the rest of the Spanish league. This year, however, it's quite possible that teams will scheme against this. Pep Guardiola, the former manager of Barcelona, realized a similar fate in his final season at the club, consequently encouraging his team to play with a radically different formation (3-4-3).
- Los Blancos are now the top dog. With the target now on Madrid's back for the first time in half a decade, La Liga clubs, players, referees, etc. will do whatever it takes to steal points from the defending champions. This means more skepticism with potential penalty shouts and more stalling from opponents who are content to play to a draw. Both of these were on heavy display in the Valencia game.
On the other side of the country, Barcelona finished their Sunday with a resounding 5-1 victory over Real Sociedad. New manager Tito Vilanova spoke in the press conference after the game of the importance of getting off to a fast start—something that FC Barcelona had failed to do in every season under Pep Guardiola.
It is perhaps a wake-up call for Real Madrid, who were the ones being chased for the majority of last season due to Barcelona's slow start. Madrid needs to be certain that what happened Sunday was a minor slip, as it can't afford to play the catch-up game.
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