Real Madrid hammered Celta Vigo 0-3 to go top of La Liga, with one player shining bright.
When Zinedine Zidane set out his first XI of the season and none of his club’s €300m worth of new signings were part of it, eyebrows must have been raised. Alright injuries have played their part, certainly in the absence of Eden Hazard, but in the absence of new boys it was Zidane’s favourites (and one not-so-favourite) that rolled back the years with a vintage display.
Madrid’s three goals were scored by three different players, and set-up by two others – with only one player both creating and scoring a goal. Who are these fab five and how did they get Real Madrid off to the perfect start in La Liga?
With Eden Hazard out injured, the man Zinedine Zidane spent an entire summer trying to sell ended up being the one who set the tempo and got Madrid on their way this season. Bale has often struggled to be consistently great for Real Madrid but has always been capable of great moments and the way he created the opening goal of the night, twisting the Celta defence inside with the kind of sharp turns that would make Ryan Giggs’ hamstrings wince, was just sublime. Don’t be surprised if the Welshman has an amazing season out of sheer spite, after all, it worked for Samuel Eto’o at Barcelona in 2008/09 (or going further back, Real Madrid in 2006/07).
One of the few men that is adored by both Zinedine Zidane and Florentino Perez, Karim Benzema has seen so many different eras in his now 10 years at the Santiago Bernabeu and has sneakily been one of the best strikers in the world for a long, long while. He’ll probably never be the elite goalscorer he could have become, and personal issues have denied him a place in French national team history, but he’s so important to everything Madrid have done and will do.
His instincts to sneak in and bag tap-ins cannot be questioned (his ability to actually finish them all, fair enough). So when he showed up to stab home Bale’s cross no one was surprised. It was a delightful goal. But Benzema being Benzema couldn’t stop there, he had to create as well. Late in the game a delicious pirouette and pass at the top of the box saw him set-up Madrid’s third. Fittingly he was the only player to be involved in more than one goal in Madrid’s big opening day.
They’ve been writing Marcelo’s epitaph at the Santiago Bernabeu since the day they signed him back in 2007. They’ve always pointed out that he is a poor defender and have spent considerable money trying to replace him. Fabio Coentrao was supposed to bench him, then Theo Hernandez, now Ferland Mendy is the latest heir to a throne Marcelo has no intent on relinquishing.
Today Marcelo was central to all three Madrid goals. Twice he played key passes in the build-up, moving the ball between the lines of Celta’s midfield to get the ball to key playmakers. And then for Toni Kroos’ goal he actually got the assist directly, although ironically this was the least involvement he actually had in a goal. Question his defensive acumen all you want but besides Luka Modric, Real Madrid have no other player who can break opponents down and set the tempo as regularly and well as Marcelo.
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Toni Kroos is a pass-master and often has been just that for Real Madrid. Today he was a stable if unspectacular presence for an hour. You could have almost forgotten he was on the field. But then he reminded everyone that not only was he on the field but he was one of the deadliest forces on it.
With Madrid just about holding on to a slender 0-1 lead, Kroos showed up hammered in an absolute rocket from about 35-40 yards out. This thing flew off his foot as if he had launched it from a mortar. Remember that scene from Superman when he kicks the ball off into space? Yeah, that’s basically what happened here. One thumping kick of a football and Real Madrid were home and hosed.
There are some players who give off the aura of being young even though they’re quite experienced. Jesse Lingard is one such player, but Lucas Vázquez is Madrid’s man. He often gets lumped in with the youngsters when he’s actually 28-years-old. The Spaniard is just six months younger than Eden Hazard! He’s also someone who Los Blancos are always considering putting up for sale, but Zinedine Zidane not only keeps him around but plays him a whole bunch even ahead of better players. Why? Because Lucas Vázquez works like very few do.
Today he came off the bench for Vinicius Jr., replacing the Brazilian with 21 minutes left to play. This was not just Zidane rewarding a favourite with minutes, but a coach making an attempt to secure a 0-2 lead. In the end what happened was Vázquez showed up at the end of a brilliant Madrid passing move to smash home his side’s third goal.
Honourable mentions: Raphael Varane and VAR
With the score at a far-from-comfortable 0-1 to Real Madrid, Celta built a nice attack down the right and Iago Aspas whipped a devilish cross into the area for his strike partner Gabi Fernández to surely tap home. But Varane slid in to intercept the ball and barely made contact, but it was enough to tip the ball just ahead of Fernández’s reach and preserve Madrid’s lead.
Minutes later, Celta did manage to put the ball in the back of the net after Denis Suárez dispossessed Alvaro Odriozola and nudged the ball into Iago Aspas who turned and, as he was being dragged to the ground, fed the ball wide for Brais Mendez to arrive and slam home. It was a beautiful goal and a deserved equaliser for Celta right at the end of the half.
But as the teams lined up to take kick-off, the referee announced a VAR check. And sure enough they found that Aspas was unintentionally a couple of inches offside when Denis played the ball to him. So legally yes, he was offside, but this was another one of those precision offside decisions that are correct in technical application of the law but feel so wrong in both the spirit and intention of them. Aspas wasn’t looking to gain an advantage and in truth got none by virtue of being offside – yet the goal was disallowed and Madrid headed into the half 0-1 up instead of pegged back at 1-1 against a buoyant Celta.
No doubt it was the correct decision, but was it the right one? Los Blancos surely won’t care as they head to the top of the table. The veterans of Real Madrid will not go gentle into that good night, they will not vanish without a fight (literally in terms of Luka Modric). This should be a fun season.