"Real Madrid live off Cristiano" was the headline which AS.com used after the team's last match, in the Copa against Celta. It could just as well have been applied tonight, when his absence was the telling thing. The team in white have no firepower without the '7'; they were weak without his goals and above all, lacking their essence and their style without his commitment to the cause. Madrid's win rate is 10% less when the Portuguese star isn't with the team, so it's not a complete surprise that Mourinho surrendered the Liga at El Sadar, and that Osasuna made the current leaders look that bit much better tonight.
The first half was an unremarkable affair that forewarned a bad night for 'Madridismo'. Despite the intense start of the last match, this time there was no dominance or class. Only losses, interruptions and haste. Osasuna kept Madrid in their half and always looked the more comfortable with the direct football on show, with the second move of the night providing the only attacking hope. Varane and Albiol kept their team in it, commanding in the aerial battles. More than anything because the Frenchman so rarely features, and the man from Valencia was making his comeback after six weeks on the sidelines. Both kept the team strong in the face of 50-50 battles, injecting the necessary attitude. But that was little more than a façade. Their displays meant that Osasuna rarely got into scoring chances, and when they did they weren't good ones; meanwhile Madrid were able to survive off those changes of pace which mark them out from the rest.
Without deserving them, Madrid enjoyed two fantastic opportunities to make an impact on the scoreboard. In the first, Higuaín got clear of Andrés Fernández on an ill-timed dash out of goal. Khedira, on his umpteenth run into the box, was unable to get on to the end of the Argentine's cross. The second, just before the break was squandered by Coentrao. In one of his rare contributions, Modric helped Callejón get clear of the defenders in a deep position. Finding his path blocked by the goalkeeper, the forward gave the ball to the Portuguese who failed to convert into an open goal, missing the chance to excuse himself for his New Year's Day no-show at training.
Osasuna didn't suffer the trials they surely would have expected. They'll never forget the pleasure of defending without having Özil, Marcelo, Benzema and especially Cristiano coming at them. Di María was little more than an extra man helping his team regain possession, and neither Callejón or Higuaín bore down on defenders with any real intent. In attack, the home team's plan was what it always has been at El Sadar - maintaining intensity, piling on pressure, getting the ball out wide and sending balls in. It provided Cejudo with Osasuna's first chance of the night from a throw in launched into the box, a ball that Madrid assigned nobody to clear.
The second half was as unmemorable as the first, though this time there was a surprising shift as Osasuna attacked from the restart and Madrid were caught completely off balance. The lack of coordination was collective and there for all to see. With Madrid focused only on knock-out games, that makes approaching battles for three points difficult.
The first talking-point of the night, the home side's resurgence, came thanks to the pressure of being bottom of the league. The second, Madrid's decline, a result of a lack of personality and a rejection of identity. Madrid would have beaten Osasuna, as long as they had played as they usually do. But not with the same weapons they started with. Mou didn't understand that, and far from correcting mistakes and taking a risk, he substituted Higuaín for Benzema and Kaká for Di María: the same strategy with different names. That allowed Sola, Oier, Lolo and Armenteros to test Casillas with cheek and without any more of a response from Madrid than long balls and lowered heads.
The need to win and the fear of finishing empty-handed again encouraged both teams, giving rise to countless incursions which at least gave the game a bit more life. Osasuna looked more likely to do damage, thanks to their intensity, conviction and movement. Then on came Özil, expected to do what he usually does and break the deadlock. That is, until Kaká left Madrid with ten men after picking up his second yellow card (one, for not paying attention to the game; the other for complete naivety). Osasuna were naturally buoyed by that, and Lolo and Damiá tried to clinch a greater prize for their team with efforts from distance. In Madrid's only sign of life, Callejón beat Andrés from Benzema's cross, making the most of a few millimetres of advantage over the only defender. But it was ruled offside. There was no time left to fix this disaster, or to prevent Barça strolling towards the end of the Liga in the knowledge that it'll take more than a slip or two for them to be reached. They'd need to implode, and that seems quite improbable.