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La Liga: Callejón the unlikely hero as Real Madrid edge past Mallorca

Last weekend Real Madrid’s Jose Maria Callejón was probably regretting his decision to return to the place where he learnt his trade.

His former side Espanyol had just got a famous and unlikely 1-1 draw against their bigger, gloating neighbours Barcelona and the atmosphere at the club’s impressive new stadium was electric.

For three seasons Callejón had been one of Espanyol’s most important players, one of the first names in the starting line up and a key player in a young, exciting team that spent a large amount of last season challenging for a place in the Europa League.

This season, without the haircut that made him look like the Spanish cousin of Jedward, Callejón has started just two league games and has spent most of his time sitting on the sidelines twiddling his thumbs, second fiddle to some of the best midfielders in the world.

But last weekend, he got his chance. José Mourinho put him in the starting line up for the away trip to Mallorca, ahead of Gonzalo Higuain.

More experienced

Madrid often have problems playing away at Mallorca and the Argentine is considerably more experienced than Callejón, and scored in his last league game. Although Higuain had not been at his best recently, it was still a strange decision.

After a first half in which Real Madrid found themselves in the unfamiliar position of being outplayed and trailing a team that wasn’t Barcelona, it seemed a bad decision. Higuain was brought on after the break. Callejón would have seemed the obvious replacement, but he remained on the pitch, Lass Diarra making way instead.

The substitute provided the finishing touch that Madrid had been lacking, equalising with 20 minutes to go after the hosts had had a seemingly legitimate goal ruled offside. Madrid were back in a game that they didn’t deserve to be in.

But as one journalist has said, for Spain’s top two, “draws are the new defeats”. Madrid needed to win to stop Barcelona slipping back into the title race. With six minutes to go Higuain barged his way towards goal but could only hit a feeble shot straight at Mallorca goalkeeper Dudu Aouate, who then denied Benzema, pushing the ball to the edge of the area.

And that was when the unlikely hero arrived. Callejón, the forgotten man, lashed the ball with his right foot into the back of the net, past two defenders on the line.

Decisive goal

The 24 year old, overcome with joy, raced away to the sidelines, pointing at the Real Madrid badge on his shirt, which he had worn so many times as a youngster.

This wasn’t his first goal for Madrid, but it was his first that made a difference. Now he knew what it was like to score a truly decisive goal, a goal that gave his team three points they barely deserved, a goal that could be crucial in steering the title back to the Bernabéu.

Another player to feel a strange sensation this weekend was Rubén Castro. He was the first opposition player to score in a league game at the Nou Camp this season.

His goal gave Real Betis hope of getting something from a game in which they were two nil down after just 12 minutes.

After Roque Santa Cruz rounded off a superb team move with an excellent finish to equalise, it looked as though they might.

Substantially easier

Barcelona, staring at a potential seven point gap between them and Real Madrid, upped their game. Iniesta was denied a clear penalty and then a minute later Betis centre-back Mario received his second yellow card in ten minutes. Barcelona’s task became substantially easier.

An Alexis Sanchez goal followed swiftly, and Lionel Messi wrapped up the points from the penalty spot to grab his second goal of the game and keep Real Madrid in sight.

The other big story from the weekend was former Atlético Madrid idol Diego Simeone’s return to the Vicente Calderón as manager. The even bigger story was that Atleti won a game, something that has become rarer than a young Spaniard getting a job.

Simeone inspired his old club to a 3-0 win against Villarreal, thanks to two goals from Falcao and one from Diego.

The press have hailed a new era at the Calderón, but don’t get excited just yet. Villarreal are second from bottom and a distant memory from the side that finished fourth last season. Despite Simeone’s arrival, Atlético remain an unbalanced team ran by owners with serious debts.

Elsewhere in La Liga, there was a second successive win for cash-strapped Rayo Vallecano, a resounding victory for Athletic Bilbao, a surprise away win for Racing Santander and a surprise home defeat for Valencia.

Copa del Rey Quarter Finals

Another Real Madrid defeat against Barca created this week's big talking point, but that doesn't tell the whole story about this season's Copa del Rey tournament so far.

To compare the Spanish cup competition to the FA Cup would be to ignore the apathy that many people in Spain, including the football federation, show towards it.

This is evident from the fact that the latter rounds, except for the final, all take place within the space of a month, and the venue and date of the final are often not known until two weeks before the event itself.

But this season’s tournament has seen plenty of drama, arguably more than the FA Cup. In last week’s fifth round ties, three teams overcame first leg deficits to progress to the Quarters, including Real Mallorca, who thumped Real Sociedad 6-1 at home after losing the away leg 2-0.

There was heartbreak for Second division clubs Córdoba and Alcorcón, who both won the first leg. Córdoba were two minutes away from knocking out Espanyol, while Alcorcón, the team that knocked out Real Madrid two years ago, were sent packing 4-0 away at Levante.

But one lower division club was victorious. Mirandés, who play in Segunda B, Spain’s regionalised third tier, knocked out La Liga’s Racing Santander 3-1 on aggregate.

Mirandés are from a city of fewer than 40,000 inhabitants, play in a stadium with a capacity of just 6,000 and have a budget of little more than €1m. Now they are in the Quarters, the first Segunda B side to get this far in seven years. In the previous round they saw off Villarreal.

The remaining Quarter Finals pair Athletic Bilbao with Mallorca and Levante with Valencia. Who ever said January was a depressing month?

La Liga Week 19 Results:

Athletic Bilbao 3-0 Levante

Atlético Madrid 3-0 Villarreal

Barcelona 4-2 Real Betis

Granada 1-2 Rayo Vallecano

Real Mallorca 1-2 Real Madrid

Real Zaragoza 1-1 Getafe

Osasuna 0-2 Racing Santander

Sevilla 0-0 Espanyol

Sporting Gijón 2-1 Málaga

Valencia 0-0 Real Sociedad

By Richard Martin


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