PHILADELPHIA -- Like it has so many times before, Real Madrid took the field, put on a show and walked away victorious. The opponent didn’t matter, nor did the venue. The result was the same.
A continent away from their homes, families and domestic leagues, the Scottish and Spanish champions met Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia in the final match of this year's World Football Challenge. Celtic was merely the latest victims of Jose Mourinho’s high-priced wrecking ball of talent, falling 2-0 -- although the score belied the match's one-sidedness.
"We’ve had good games. We came to the U.S. to do the work that we wanted to do," Real Madrid assistant coach Aitor Karanka, speaking at the post-game press conference for Mourninho, said.
The most decorated side in both Spanish and European competition, Real Madrid came to the United States and ran roughshod on this competition, entering Philadelphia with identical 5-1 drubbings of the LA Galaxy and AC Milan sandwiched around a 2-1 victory over Mexican side Santos Laguna in Las Vegas.
"We feel pretty comfortable whenever we come [to America]," said Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso.
On foreign soil, matching up against some of the world's biggest and most recognizable stars, the Old Firm side struggled. Support for the green and white in the home of the Philadelphia Eagles was sporadic and fleeting.
Predictably, the crowd of 34,018 leaned heavily in favor of the world-renowned Madridistas, with the largest ovations directed towards star forward Cristiano Ronaldo. Despite a small but fiercely vocal Celtic contingent, the roars anytime this generation’s David Beckham – footballer, celebrity, icon – touched the ball were deafening, and the reverberations of his American stardom could be felt from here to the Santiago Bernabeu.
Both teams had visited the area recently, to a mixed bag of results. In 2010, the Glaswegians were sent home hanging their heads, victims of a 1-0 defeat to the MLS’ Philadelphia Union at PPL Park in Chester, Pa. Los Merengues, who ended arch-rival Barcelona’s three year reign atop La Liga in May, made their triumphant return to Lincoln Financial Field a year after defeating the Union 2-1 on these grounds.
Jose Maria Callejon mirrored his heroics of that match, once again opening the scoring for Madrid. Forward Gonzalo Higuain bore down on goal, and as he made his way through the Celtic defense, the ball was fortuitously dispossessed right toward the trailing Callejon. One move was all it took to beat keeper Lukasz Zaluska, and the 25-year-old winger had earned a 1-0 lead for Los Blancos.
After a dominating first half garnered a mere one-goal lead, Mourninho took advantage of his embarrassment of riches and sent out a markedly different squad, but one with no dip in quality or menace. Off came megastars Ronaldo, Kaka, Higuain, Alonso, Ramos and others – but in their stead, Celtic had to deal with Benzema, Ozil, Di Maria and impregnable All-Everything keeper Iker Casillas.
“When we have a stellar roster like we have, it’s so much easier to work,” said Karanka, who played briefly for the Colorado Rapids. “The quality you’ve seen in these players, they are very competitive.”
With Celtic struggling to hold any possession, Karim Benzema doubled down on Madrid’s lead in the 67th minute. Turning defender Kelvin Wilson inside-out, the French international lashed a left-footed shot past Zaluska, clipping the inside of the far post and sliding into the back of the net.
Despite the negative result, Zaluska kept optimistic in the face of the Galacticos Version 2.0 onslaught.
"I faced several shots, and unfortunately we lost," said the Polish keeper. "Losing this game against Real Madrid, we can’t be ashamed – they are a fantastic team."
Once the Castilians get rolling, their momentum is nearly impossible to control. Mere minutes after Benzema’s goal, Celtic’s Dylan McGeough collided in mid-air with Nuri Sahin and was carted off on a stretcher. But not even the nearly 10-minute delay and the stadium’s deafening silence could harness the vaunted Madrid attack. Angel Di Maria turned the final quarter of an hour into a one-man fast break, creating chance after chance in carving up the Celtic back line.
McGeough may have suffered a fractured jaw, and was taken to the hospital upon exiting the match.
"He may need surgery, I’m not sure," said Celtic manager Neil Lennon. "He was in distress, obviously, and in shock as well."
Fresh off a 1-0 victory against Aberdeen to open the Scottish Premier League season, Lennon left first-teamers Victor Wanyama, James Forrest, Scott Brown and Georgios Samaras home to rest and heal. While Celtic received an early in-season test, Real Madrid ironed out their final kinks before kicking off in Valencia on Aug. 19.
Never satisfied, always hungry for more, the Spanish giant nonetheless understand that after rolling through its American tour, it are peaking at the right time.
"Can things improve? Absolutely," said Alonso. "But we feel quite well, and we know we are just one week ahead of the start of the season."
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