Two moments of outstanding fortune and one fine moment of improvisation from youngster Jese Rodriguez enabled Real Madrid to build an imposing 3-0 advantage over Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday.
Jese poked past Thibaut Courtois either side of deflected goals from Pepe and Angel Di Maria, in a first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu that was often overshadowed by constant and unseemly sniping between the two sets of players.
Diego Costa, perhaps the instigator of much of the bad blood as he immediately set about a physical battle with Pepe, was eventually booked for his antics—a yellow card that means he will miss next week’s second leg at the Vicente Calderon.
Shorn of their star striker, Atletico’s hopes of overturning their deficit look extremely slim, although their overall performance perhaps did not warrant a three-goal deficit.
Afterward, Carlo Ancelotti noted (per AFP):
I think it was [the best performance]. Above all because the team we were facing is a very difficult team to play against. They are very strong and aggressive, so I thought we played very well.
I am completely satisfied. We did everything well, we moved the ball with pace and were very aggressive without it.
I wish the team could always play like they did tonight.
With Gareth Bale ruled out yet again, Ancelotti opted to start Jese in an attacking role alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, with Fabio Coentrao coming in at left-back and Iker Casillas once again in goal.
Atletico, meanwhile, shuffled their pack—with January signing Diego and Raul Garcia playing behind Costa.
In a game of very few clear-cut chances, Real Madrid took the lead with one of their first sightings of goal. Ronaldo did well on the left to keep the ball, feeding Luka Modric around 30 yards from goal. The Croatian dragged Koke out of position before finding the onrushing Pepe, who had spotted the opportunity to get involved in an attacking move.
Taking one touch before firing at goal, the Portuguese saw his wayward effort hit Emiliano Insua on the way through, sending it arcing toward the other corner of the goal and leaving Courtois with no chance.
Rather than pave the way for an open, attacking game of football, however, the contest soon descended into a series of needling incidents between players that disrupted the flow of the game.
Costa and Pepe were the prime culprits, although Diego Godin and Sergio Ramos also never turned down an opportunity to exchange words and challenges.
Atletico had started the brighter—with Arda Turan forcing one save from Casillas—but seemed more restricted after Pepe’s opener, with Costa somewhat hopeful for a penalty after taking a tumble.
Instead, it was Real who pressed, with Modric and Benzema both failing to find the target with reasonable openings.
It was not until near the hour mark, in fact, that Real would double their advantage. Unlike the opener, this was an example of skill rather than good fortune. Jese capped an impressive performance as his first-time finish caught Courtois by surprise and slipped under his dive and into the net.
Di Maria had provided the astute cross, then contributed further moments later as Costa picked up his suspension for the second leg after kicking out at the Argentine.
Both sides then looked to shake things up, with Atletico bringing on Adrian to join Cristian Rodriguez and Real responding by adding Alvaro Morata.
Morata’s impact was almost immediate, although perhaps not in a way he would have intended. With one of his first touches, the striker received the ball and moved toward goal before being tackled by Godin.
But Di Maria was following in behind and hit a first-time shot, one that clipped Miranda’s heels as it deflected around Courtois—who had already committed to his dive.
From then on it was Real Madrid with almost all the notable chances, with Pepe poking just wide from a corner, and Ronaldo and Modric both peppering Courtois’ goal.
Atletico did have Casillas beaten once, as Godin’s towering header powered past the goalkeeper, but fortunately Modric was on the line to make an important clearance.
Atletico Madrid: Have conceded at least 3 goals in a match in all competitions for the first time this season— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) February 5, 2014
The final whistle came and Real duly celebrated an important win. The scoreline was perhaps harsh on Atletico, but the second leg nevertheless figures to be more notable for its disciplinary issues than any intrigue over who will be reaching the competition’s final.
Atletico, currently in (marginal) control of the Liga title race, may even consider tweaking their approach to the game in order to focus on the league—although the importance of the rivalry with Real may prevent that.
And it is not as if Diego Simeone has given up hope. The Atletico manager said:
I think Real Madrid played very well, but they scored twice with shots that hit our players on the body and went in.
It is a very favourable result for the opponent, but apart from that there is nothing I can draw from the game at the moment.
We still have 90 minutes to play and anything can happen in football.
The second leg takes place next week. In between, both sides continue their La Liga challenge—with Real Madrid hosting Villarreal and Atletico visiting Almeria.