Ronaldo double rewards Real's rope-a-dope

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The Independent Football

It was business as usual for Real Madrid at the Estadio Anoeta on Saturday. Seemingly out for the count for most of the match as Real Sociedad swamped them in midfield and laid siege to their area, the visitors somehow managed to hold on until the closing minutes and then claimed a devastating, if rather undeserved, 2-0 victory thanks to two expertly delivered hammer blows from Ronaldo. It was the sort of rope-a-dope tactic that would have brought a smile to the lips of Muhammad Ali.

For a side constructed on the whim of the club's president, Florentino Perez, in order to provide 90 minutes of pure spectacle, the tactic is a complete betrayal of principles, but it is nevertheless effective. Real have now put together a six-match winning streak, making off with the points in almost exactly the same way each time. Even the most devoted Barcelona fan must be beginning to get worried that Real might hijack the title in the same way.

Sociedad, a team mired in mid-table with almost nothing to play for other than the joy of knocking Real off their pedestal, gave the Madrid side a grilling from the first whistle. Mikel Alonso, Xabi's elder brother, dominated central midfield, Jose Javier Barkero and Javier Garrido were given free range on either flank and Valery Karpin orchestrated his troops with his usual mixture of enthusiasm and intelligence.

The 36-year-old Russian almost gave the Basque side the lead when he fired over the bar after a quarter of an hour and it took a superb reflex save from the Real keeper Iker Casillas to stop his fierce drive moments later after Sociedad had carved their way through the midfield.

Real, on the other hand, had to live off scraps of possession, their only first-half chance came when David Beckham let fly from 30 yards only to see his shot swerve past the far post. The England captain, 30 today, was the only Real player to carry any attacking threat, with his free-kicks and corners, but his contribution was not as decisive as it has been in recent games. His England colleague Michael Owen barely had a sniff of the ball.

Sociedad sprayed the ball around the midfield and Karpin again went close to giving the home side the lead when he slammed a spectacular volley against the bar just before the half-hour.

Inexplicably, given the absence of Zinedine Zidane, Real's coach, Wanderley Luxemburgo, left the club's only truly creative midfielder, Guti, on the bench. But it was the entry of the Spanish international on the hour that turned the game.

The 28-year-old added direction to a rudderless Real and found a gap in the Sociedad defence with a wonderful through ball that rolled perfectly to Ronaldo. Taking the pass in his stride, the Brazilian galloped towards the goal, slowed up, left the keeper sprawling on the grass with a trademark shimmy and guided the ball into the empty net. There were seven minutes left.

Deep into injury time Guti did it again. Jinking his way into the area from the left, he picked out the unmarked Ronaldo at the far post. The Brazilian appeared to have been caught off guard as he tripped over the ball at first but he quickly recovered his composure to back-heel it into the net and secure a win that breathed new life into Real's dreams of depriving Barcelona of the title.

Elsewhere on Saturday, Valencia suffered a blow to their Champions' League ambitions, held to a 1-1 draw at the bottom club, Numancia. Luis Tevenet opened the scoring for the hosts in the 75th minute, but the winger Vicente Rodriguez, returning from injury after three months, equalised from the penalty spot with six minutes to go.

The midfielder Gonzalo Colsa earned Atletico Madrid a home point against Athletic Bilbao in a result which helped neither side's chances of making it into Europe next season. Colsa's late strike cancelled out Joseba Etxeberria's 65th-minute goal but Atletico also had defender Jose Garcia Calvo sent off in the last minute.

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