Instead they found opponents who pressed them all over the pitch and never allowed them to settle, and behind them a Brazilian goalkeeper, Diego Alves, in inspired form.
With Fabio Cannavaro conceding a penalty, and Ruud Van Nistelrooy hobbling off with an ankle injury, it was an evening to forget for the champions, although their coach Bernd Schuster will hope they remember not to underestimate determined opponents in future.
Madrid should have been warned. They have a habit of losing games to newly-promoted sides, such as Valladolid and Murcia in previous seasons.
On Thursday Almeria coach Unai Emery told journalists he wanted to beat Madrid, “not just put on a good show”, and it wasn’t just bravado. Last October Almeria were unlucky to lose to Barcelona in Camp Nou, and since then they have beaten both Sevilla and Espanyol at home, and drawn away to Villarreal. In the top flight for the first time, Almeria are contenders to qualify for the UEFA Cup next season.
There was welcome relief for two other contenders, Sevilla and Valencia, both of whom managed to win away from home. It was Valencia’s first league win since November 10. Goalkeeper Timo Hildebrand feels that the team “will improve over the next few games” but realistically their best chance of salvaging their season is in the cup, where they are now in the semi-final after defeating Atletico Madrid.
With Villarreal held 1-1 at home by Mallorca, however, the competition for Champions League and UEFA Cup places is hotting up – just seven points separate 3rd from 8th.
As for the title itself Real Madrid remain strong favourites, having beaten Barcelona away from home, but Barca gave themselves some hope last night by taking advantage of the champions’ slip-up.
A 1-0 win against Osasuna reduced the gap at the top to six points. It was a match that left Barcelona fans with shredded nerves, their team creating few clear-cut openings against resilient opponents.
Frank Rijkaard substituted first Thierry Henry, then Leo Messi, and finally, with nine minutes left, Xavi came on for Deco. It was the third change that did the trick.
There were just two minutes of normal time left when Andres Iniesta shot from just outside the area and, with goalkeeper Ricardo on the ground, Xavi put the rebound into the net. Camp Nou erupted in joy and relief. Game on again in La Liga.
BIG setbacks for both Juventus and Roma yesterday restored the gap at the top to eight points. But it was hard work for 10-man Inter, who beat Empoli 1-0 thanks to a dubious penalty followed by a penalty save from Julio Cesar 10 minutes from time.
Juventus had to win but were again held at home — this time by bottom club Cagliari.
Roma’s 3-0 defeat at Siena was even more of shock. Like Cagliari, the home side raised their game against big opponents, and Roma found the soaked pitch hard to cope with.
The Roma midfield never managed to get going, and to complete their humiliation the third goal was scored by a striker from Liechtenstein, Mario Frick.
Last night, Milan beat Fiorentina with a superb goal from Alexandre Pato. The youngster was then carried off with an ankle injury.
SUDDENLY the race for the title in Holland looks virtually over — but the battle to qualify for Europe could last right until the end of the season.
Two 2-0 away wins by PSV, against Ajax in midweek, followed by AZ Alkmaar on Saturday, have put the reigning champions well clear at the top. Ajax responded the following day with a crucial 3-0 victory over Feyenoord but are still eight points behind.
Lower down, the table has an unexpected look, with Feyenoord now struggling in fifth place after wins for both Herenveen and Groningen. Pride of place goes to Herenveen, who destroyed Vitesse with five second-half goals to win 7-0, just three days after selling top scorer Afonso Alves to Middlesbrough.
The transfer faces a challenge from AZ. The Dutch club are complaining to FIFA that they had a pre-contract agreement with Alves.
BUSINESS resumed after the winter break in Germany with a 2-1 win for Bayern Munich on Friday, with goals from the usual suspects — Luca Toni and Franck Ribery.
Elsewhere it was also a familiar story. Werder Bremen, who worked so hard to draw level with Bayern before Christmas, managed to lose 2-1 at home to Bochum, after taking the lead just on half-time. In the second half Bochum equalised, Werder centre back Naldo was sent off two minutes later, and six minutes from time Bochum secured their first away win over Werder in 31 attempts.
Schalke restarted their campaign with a fine 4-1 win at home against champions Stuttgart, thanks to a double from striker Kevin Kuranyi.
The dark horses are Bayer Leverkusen, who won their sixth league game out of seven against struggling Cottbus.