What was meant to be a potentially wonderful night for the 80,000 Santiago Bernabeu attendees ended up turning into an evening to mourn the league season as Real Madrid succumbed to their third defeat, this time against Manuel Preciado’s Sporting Gijon. With few games to spare before the curtain is drawn on La Liga, the title seems a distant star, light-years away from Real Madrid’s own constellation of footballers.

At home against lowly Sporting Gijon, all the details were pointing to a successful night: Prior to the game, recently retired icon Ronaldo was personally honoured by the club for his services to football in general and the White Castle in particular. The leading figure of Real’s first generation of Galacticos that included the likes of Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane and Raul, the emotion was clearly visible on Ronaldo’s face, having pulled the plug last February on an immense career that had been plagued with three serious knee injuries and a secret struggle with hypothyroidism and weight issues.

The stadium erupted in cheers and applause for “Il Fenomeno”. Jose Mourinho even invited president Florentino Perez to take a seat next to him in the dugout. The Madrid ship was sailing smoothly; surely Sporting Gijon would be quickly dismissed.

As the first few minutes quickly elapsed, it seemed clear to everybody that Mourinho’s men were missing the injured Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Marcelo. The trio have been particularly in form in Madrid’s recent fixtures, dictating most of the play alongside Mesut Ozil and Xabi Alonso – another absentee on the night.

Deputising for Ronaldo on the left wing, Esteban Granero seemed more of a nuisance for his own team than a threat to the visiting Rojiblancos. Known as “El Pirata”, Granero’s usual efforts were absent on the night, as the box-to-box midfielder struggled to hold the ball, let alone press the opposing team and lead them towards making the mistake that would have surely opened up the match for his team.


Granero’s substitution was predictable from the first few minutes, and the decision to take the 23-year-old off for the returning Gonzalo Higuain surprised no one. With Sporting relying heavily on ultra-defensive tactics and counter-attacks, motion was dictated by the Real Madrid midfield for the entire match: Ozil was constantly at the heart of his team’s movement, while Angel di Maria efforts were always subject to failure. Shooting on target from every conceivable angle, and hopelessly trying to win a penalty for his team, Di Maria was taken off as Mourinho found out that there was little left in his wobbly legs.

Another player who largely proved to be off-form was on-loan striker Emmanuel Adebayor. The Togolese’s movement was sluggish at times, and not suitable for the fast game that his team adopted towards the latter stages; the striker was always a yard behind through balls that could have been converted, and failed to tuck away another two easy chances that would have surely turned the tables around.

But as the match’s hourglass was down to its last grains of sand, disaster struck when Miguel de las Cuevas opened the scoring for the visitors, leaving Iker Casillas perplexed as his low drive hit the woodwork before settling inside the back of the net.

The home side tried to draw level in the remaining minutes, but to no avail. And with that Sporting Gijon effectively ended Los Blancos’ title aspirations; a single shot on target all night no less, breaking Real Madrid’s determination as well as Mourinho’s golden record of 150 unbeaten league matches at home, a feat that will surely be impossible to break for years to come.

Trailing Barcelona by an eight-point gap, the league season is as good as over for Real Madrid, even if Mourinho manages to surprise everyone with a resounding win in the Clasico at the Bernabeu in two weeks’ time. But the club’s hopes are still very much alive in the Copa del Rey, where they will meet their eternal foes mere days after their return league encounter in the competition’s final.

Furthermore, their chances of Champions League progression are certainly more than respectable. Mourinho remains an expert tactician in knockout football, and his team have been one of the better performers during this season – yet to concede a single goal on home soil during a European night. Should the Portuguese play his cards right, then the chances are that Real Madrid will meet Barcelona in the semi-final.

Los Blancos had their chance to prize away the league and they blew it: Defeats to Osasuna and Sporting Gijon as well as frustrating draws with the likes of Almeria mean that a thirty-second domestic accolade will have to wait for next season. But Mourinho knows that the season is not a complete failure yet, and should he manage to regroup his team mentally, then there is a good chance that his charges might end up with a piece of the cake after years of drought and letdown.