All signs suggested that Madrid would heap more misery onto a struggling Villarreal side Wednesday night at the Bernabéu and take all three points from the fixture, and that's exactly what happened, with first-half goals from Karim Benzema, Kaká and man of the match Angel di María. The win brought Madrid back ahead of Barcelona on 22 points, one behind shock league leaders Levante, whose entire first XI cost less than one Big Two player's weekly salary.
Los blancos have failed to win just one of their league fixtures against the tiny Valencian side, the Yellow Submarine having snatched a narrow 3-2 victory at El Madrigal in the 2008-09 season, when the ill-fated Juande Ramos was still manager of Real Madrid and the team were far enough behind in the title race that they had nothing to play for. Seasoned madridistas will remember fondly a 6-2 massacre in the Bernabéu in the 2009-2010 season and Wesley Sneijder putting the home team to the sword 5-0 at El Madrigal in the 2007-2008 season. Villarreal were weakened considerably over the summer by having been forced by financial constraints to sell their key winger Santi Cazorla and World Cup-winning left back Joan Capdevila to the more prosperous Málaga and Benfica, respectively, and had started the season miserably, winning just one match thus far at home against Mallorca.
Real Madrid lined up with few surprises in their typical 4-2-3-1 formation, with Khedira again partnering Xabi Alonso in central midfield, although Kaká once again got the nod over Mesut Özil and Benzema started ahead of the in-form Higuaín. No doubt Mourinho made these selections with one eye on Saturday's match against Real Sociedad; the Portuguese tactician is well-known to consider seriously the more long-term implications of his selections, seeing not just one game but a whole season during which players must be carefully managed with regard to form, confidence and fitness.
Los vikingos started the game well, setting a high tempo on proceedings and imposing themselves strongly on the visitors. Just three minutes into the match, Sergio Ramos had already put the ball into the net; although his header from a Xabi Alonso set piece was ruled out for being marginally offside, it was a signal of intent.
Just three minutes later, Sergio Ramos brought the ball out of defense and played a short pass to Angel di María on the right flank just inside the Villarreal half. The mercurial Argentine looked up before arrowing an exquisite diagonal ball over the top of the Villarreal defense to find the feet of Karim Benzema, playing the Frenchman one-on-one with Diego López. Benzema chipped the ball over the keeper to make it 1-0 to Madrid.
Madrid continued to create opportunities, with Ronaldo seeing his shot saved by López, but it only took until the 11th minute for them to make it 2-0. Benzema, finding himself stymied by a wall of yellow-shirted defenders, dinked a horizontal pass to Kaká, which found him just outside the area. The Brazilian took a couple touches before lasering an unsaveable shot low inside the far post beyond the keeper's outstretched hand.
Villarreal did manage to get forward a little after the second goal, but Sergio Ramos' superb defending from the center-back position he seems to be making his own stopped the Yellow Submarine in its tracks and allowed Madrid to counterattack swiftly.
In the 30th minute, one of these counterattacks came to fruition. Kaká collected the ball near his own penalty spot from a defensive header off of a Villarreal cross, and burst forward at top speed before playing it to Marcelo on the left flank. Marcelo showed remarkable composure, holding the ball just long enough to find Benzema in the center. The young Frenchman played a superb long defense-splitting pass to find Angel di María alone on the right side of the box, who took some silky touches inside the area to befuddle the keeper before drilling it into the far corner of the net for Madrid's third goal of the night. The entire attack took just 12 seconds from the moment Kaká controlled the aerial ball inside his own box until it crossed the goal line in a textbook example of the counterattack.
After this goal, Madrid took their foot off of the gas, but Villarreal never really got back into the game despite having a better second half. Higuaín, Özil and Coentrão all made appearances late on, but Madrid seemed content to see out the 3-0 scoreline and keep their clean-sheet. This was, in many ways, a typical Mourinho performance, especially in a rare midweek league fixture. The players put in a superb counterattacking performance in the first half, won, kept and passed the ball efficiently, got their goals and then checked out to preserve fitness for Saturday's game.
Di María continues to shake off his recent slump with a rich vein of form to show why he deserves to be included in a competitive midfield that will only become more so once Nuri Sahin makes his long-anticipated debut. With a goal and a superb assist as well as lots of good running and dribbling, breathtaking speed and close control, Di María made a statement that Mourinho will likely have received loud and clear.
Cristiano Ronaldo, on the other hand, had a rather poor game by his admittedly lofty standards. It may have been a mistake to reduce the tempo and see out the match rather than take the opportunity to put on Özil and allow the young German to regain some confidence after being partially displaced by Kaká in recent weeks, as well as get Ronaldo some goals. The Portuguese's performances seem to come in streaks and continuing his goalscoring form seems to be very important to his confidence. No doubt he will be hungry to punish Sociedad on the weekend for his poor showing at the Bernabéu.
Spare a thought for poor old Villarreal. The lovable Valencian underdogs who came out of nowhere with great football and a bevy of talented players from Latin America and Spain to come within a whisker of being in the final of the Champions League in 2006 (losing out to an inferior Arsenal side) have fallen on hard times and now lie in the relegation zone. Since coming up to the Primera for the first time in 1998, they have routinely entertained Spanish football fans with some of the best and most exciting attacking play in the league. Gone, it seems, are the heady days when teams quaked to face Manuel Pellegrini's side and the likes of Juan Román Riquelme, one of the greatest talents to grace the game, Marcos Senna, the man who knit together Spain's 2008 European Championship side, and their somewhat less illustrious teammates. It is important to remember that Villarreal and Sevilla, the two teams that have produced the best football outside of the big two for a number of years, are the teams most hurt by the current inequalities in the TV deal, which give the lion's share to Madrid and Barcelona, but also a substantial portion to Valencia and Atlético Madrid. If the current situation continues, fans of Spanish football will have lost something very special indeed.