José Mourinho must have been satisfied at half time on Sunday night, but an important part of his talent consists in not showing contentment to the locker room. Before he could get comfy on the bench at the start of the second period, Gonzalo Higuaín was finishing another rapier thrust of a counter attack to turn 2-0 into 3-0, and guard Real’s 10-point gap over Barcelona at the top.
Espanyol coach Mauricio Pochettino knew what that strike — the Argentinean forward’s first in almost two months — meant, and remained under cover for the rest of the second half, despite having spent much of the first instructing his players in a bid to turn back the white tide. But Espanyol was not showing why it has spent most of the season sniffing around the European spots toward the top of the table, far too static in both defense and when it had the ball. The only player likely to have received a pat on the back from Pochettino on the way home to Barcelona was young goalkeeper Kiko Casilla, who ended up seeing five put past him after a lively final movement from Kaká had kept the Bernabéu crowd entertained up to the final whistle. The Brazilian scored the fourth with an artist’s delicacy before setting up Higuaín for his second, his 16th of the season, while Cristiano Ronaldo took his total to 30 Liga goals when putting away the first of the night.
Nor was this the most ruthless face of Mourinho’s Madrid, the one that resembles a pack of wolves hunting down the unfortunate opponent who hesitates in his own territory. This was clinical Real, which seemed to know it would convert an extraordinarily high percentage of loose balls into goal-scoring chances in a matter of seconds, with Mesut Özil acting as the surgeon general.
Costa’s Rayo sunshine
Elsewhere, Valencia desperately needed a win to re-mark the third-place territory over which it has enjoyed virtually unchallenged ownership in recent years, but for which credible suitors are now lining up, notably Málaga and Athletic Bilbao. The 0-1 result at Granada was anything but convincing, but reassuring nonetheless for a financially shaky club which relies on Champions League funds to hold itself together.
Among the less likely candidates for a European berth is Rayo Vallecano, which after a stirring 4-2 victory over Racing has won four of its last five after being unlucky to come away with nothing from its match against Real. Stormy Brazilian Diego Costa inspired Saturday’s come-from-behind win, assisting three teammates for second-half scores after Santander keeper Toño had been red-carded for a full-body assault on the forward. The only cloud for Costa was his fifth card in as many games for Rayo, meaning a one-match suspension.