Football: Real Madrid held on Benitez bow, Barca win in Bilbao
Rafael Benitez’s reign as Real Madrid boss got off to a poor start as his side of star names were held 0-0 by newly-promoted Sporting Gijon on Sunday.
Los Blancos are already two points behind Barcelona as the champions exacted revenge for their Spanish Super Cup defeat to Athletic Bilbao thanks to Luis Suarez’s solitary second-half strike.
Sporting were playing their first game back in the top flight for three years, but roared on by a vociferous home support they matched the visitors.
They could even had taken a famous three points had Antonio Sanabria’s first-half header been deemed to have crossed the line.
“It’s clear that the first-half wasn’t good at all. In the second-half the team controlled possession a lot more, we took the initiative and in the few chances we had we didn’t take them,” Madrid captain Sergio Ramos told Canal Plus.
Benitez started with Gareth Bale in a more central position, but the Welshman was again disappointing as Madrid failed to create clear-cut chances before the break.
Indeed it was the hosts who came closest to breaking the deadlock when Sanabria’s headed effort came back off the underside of the bar and appeared to just clip the goal line on its way back out.
Sporting also had the first chance of the second period when Carlos Carmona sent a bullet header inches past the post.
However, the Asturians then had to withstand wave upon wave of Real attack in the final half hour.
Cristiano Ronaldo was uncharacteristically wayward in front of goal as he somehow failed to direct James Rodriguez’s inch-perfect cross on target.
The World Player of the Year missed an even better chance 15 minutes from time from another fine cross by Danilo.
Sporting ‘keeper Ivan Cuellar salvaged a point for his side with a stunning save to turn Ronaldo’s fiercely struck effort behind.
– More Messi penalty woes –
In Bilbao, Lionel Messi’s troubles from the penalty spot continued as he saw a first-half spot-kick saved by Gorka Iraizoz.
However, his strike partner ensured that miss didn’t prove costly as Suarez volleyed home early in the second-half to hand the champions all three points.
“These matches are vital if you aspire to win the league,” said Suarez
“We won the game and that is the important thing. We had to wait for the moment to create chances.”
Luis Enrique’s men were returning to the ground where they were thrashed 4-0 in the first leg of the Super Cup just nine days ago.
They were also without the suspended Gerard Pique, whilst Neymar wasn’t fit to take part after just returning to training following a bout of the mumps.
The game burst into life when referee Carlos del Cerro Grande controversially pointed to the spot when Suarez went down under a challenge from Gorka Elustondo.
However, Messi failed to open the scoring from the resulting spot-kick as Iraizoz dived to his right to make a brilliant save.
The Argentine has now missed five penalties for club and country in the past year and failed to find the net in 14 of the 63 penalties he has taken for Barca.
Iraizoz produced an even better stop moments later to prevent Suarez sweeping home Sergi Roberto’s cross to ensure Athletic went in level at the break.
The Uruguayan wasn’t to be denied just eight minutes into the second-half, though, as he connected sweetly on his left-foot with Jordi Alba’s cross.
However, the visitors suffered another injury blow when Sergio Busquets was stretchered off with an ankle problem and were left hanging on with a makeshift back four.
Ibai Gomez had the Basques’ best chance to equalise 10 minutes from time, but he blasted over when the ball fell invitingly inside the Barca box.