The Blancos’ seven-game unbeaten run came to an end after an abysmal performance as Sergio Ramos also saw red
As quickly as Real Madrid’s title hopes reignited, they were extinguished.
All the momentum and hope Santiago Solari’s side have generated in recent weeks was quashed by a diabolical second-half performance against Girona on Sunday at the Santiago Bernabeu.
A 1-0 lead became a 2-1 defeat in two easy steps, with veteran duo Marcelo and Sergio Ramos both to blame.
With Girona having suffered six consecutive defeats in all competitions and without a win in 13 matches, Solari figured he could rotate.
So Marcelo came back in, along with Marco Asensio on the left flank in place of Real Madrid’s man-of-the-moment, Vinicius Junior.
Dani Ceballos replaced Luka Modric in midfield too and all the changes seemed to upset Madrid’s rhythm.
Even in the first half when they moved ahead through Casemiro’s header, they weren’t playing well.
Like Barcelona on Saturday in their narrow win over Real Valladolid, Madrid were playing badly but Girona were even worse, and that’s how Los Blancos took a one goal lead in at half-time.
The match was a scrappy, bitty affair, with both sets of players looking like the midday kick-off had left them short of a few hours’ sleep.
But Girona coach Eusebio Sacristan got to work at half-time and earned his money.
The experienced manager decided to target Marcelo’s flank and switched winger Portu over to their right, and it paid dividends.
However it was Ramos to blame for the first goal, ending a bad week for the skipper.
After his controversial comments revealing he deliberately picked up a booking against Ajax in the Champions League – in order to miss the second leg and be clear to play in the quarter-finals – he was forced to back-track, under the threat of an extra game ban being added.
Then he conceded the penalty which saw Girona level in the 65th minute, a deliberate handball as he blocked a shot.
Cristhian Stuani slotted home from the penalty spot, his 13th goal of the season.
Curiously the Uruguayan was a transfer target for Barcelona in the winter window, before they eventually settled on loaning Kevin-Prince Boateng from Sassuolo.
It was a money saving endeavour from Barcelona and there is no doubt that Stuani would have been a better purchase, but as fate would have it, it may end up working out better that he stayed at Girona.
After all, the forward remained ice-cool to beat Thibaut Courtois from the penalty spot and pull Girona level.
Eusebio’s half-time substitutes Aleix Garcia and Anthony Lozano changed the dynamic of the game and, along with Portu and Stuani, suddenly the visitors were crawling all over the hosts.
Solari, who is still a novice despite his excellent start at Madrid, didn’t know how to react and change the game.
He threw on Vinicius and Gareth Bale, but it didn’t help the European champions, who were increasingly suffocated.
Marcelo, floundering increasingly as the minutes went by, was nowhere to be seen as Portu strolled into the area and cracked a shot against the post.
And when Courtois parried Lozano’s shot back in to the danger zone, Marcelo was not close enough to Portu, who rammed home. To make matters worse, Ramos was sent off for a second yellow card in the final minute.
An intense lesson in in-game management for Solari, perhaps the final nail in the coffin for Marcelo, and another slap in the face for Ramos.
Madrid, meanwhile, having got themselves somewhat back into the title race, now find themselves nine points behind Barcelona once again. How swiftly things can change in football.