Espanyol vs. Real Madrid: 6 Things We Learned
It may not have been Real Madrid's most thrilling performance of the season, but their 1-0 win over Espanyol was enough for them to close the gap on ladder leaders Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.
Pepe's second-half goal secured all three points for Carlo Ancelotti's side, who until that point had trouble breaking down a stubborn Espanyol defense.
Here are six things we learned from the encounter.
Di Maria Deserves a Starting Place
Ancelotti must think Angel Di Maria has a lot to contribute to Real Madrid, as he has been willing to shoehorn him into the starting 11 in a number of positions in order to give him game time.
With Cristiano Ronaldo operating on the left and Gareth Bale starting on the right, the Italian coach used the skinny Argentine through the middle, in the position that Isco would normally operate from.
The central role did not come naturally to Di Maria, however, and he could often be found drifting out to the areas of the pitch he is more accustomed to on the left.
From there he proved his worth, offering more spark in attack than the rest of the players in Madrid's attacking third.
When it came time to make a change, Ancelotti pulled off Bale, who had little effect on the right, rather than the livelier Di Maria, who also helped out frequently in defense.
The mystery of where to play the Argentine when both Cristiano and Bale are fit has not yet been solved, but the manager must continue to tinker until he finds the right combination.
Real Madrid Can Be Undone by a Good Right-Winger
Romanian wide-man Gabriel Torje kept Marcelo busy for the first hour of the match thanks to his pace and guile down the right flank.
It may be common knowledge that there are almost always gaps to exploit behind the adventurous Brazilian left-back, but few sides in La Liga have the gumption to do so.
Torje showed against Real Madrid that if Marcelo is constantly worried about a winger zooming past him, he is likely to have less influence in attack.
Defending Set Pieces Is Important
Espanyol had played an almost perfect match for the first 55 minutes, defensively at least, yet all their fantastic work was undone when they failed to carry out the relatively simple task of marking Pepe at a set piece.
The big defender was all alone when he soared high to head in Luka Modric's free-kick cross, and the look of despair on goalkeeper Kiko Casilla's face summed up how every Espanyol fan must have been feeling.
Maintaining two rigid lines of four for an entire 90 minutes to defend against some of the world's finest attacking players requires an immense amount of discipline.
But concentration must be maintained for the whole match as well, as Espanyol found out on Sunday.
Pepe Can Be a Match Winner
A man who is normally never far from the headlines, Pepe has, by his standards at least, flown under the radar somewhat in recent months.
His performance against Espanyol was of the highest class, though, and not just because he scored the winner.
Defensively, the Portugal center-back was at his very best, bullying opponents off the ball, calmly distributing from the back and reading the play well in what was a classy display overall.
Stuani Needs Help in Attack
It became especially clear after Espanyol went a goal down, and somewhat strangely took off their best attacking player to that point, Torje, that they had little in the way of weaponry to break down Real Madrid's defense.
Christian Stuani provided an element of flair, but he was given little support by the players around him when he attempted to create dangerous situations in the attacking third.
Even Cristiano Ronaldo Can Have a Quiet Night
The Portuguese superstar was by no means awful against Espanyol, but nor did he have the kind of influence over the game that we have become accustomed to.
Just a day before he will likely pick up his second Ballon d'Or award for being the best player on the planet over the past 12 months, Cristiano had one of those rare matches when he was entirely underwhelming.