Football Features

Fluid football and Guti reborn: Real Madrid show what Barcelona lack in 1-0 win v Espanyol

By Chris Smith

Published: 22:55, 28 June 2020

Real Madrid returned to the top of the La Liga table with a 1-0 win over Espanyol on Sunday night, making it five victories from five games since the return of play.

Barcelona had temporarily leapfrogged Los Blancos with a 2-2 draw against Celta Vigo on Saturday but with Sunday’s opponents Espanyol sitting bottom of La Liga, it was widely expected that Zinedine Zidane’s side would retake first place quickly enough.

It was anything but a routine win for Madrid, however, with Espanyol testing the visitors throughout the first half with some quick counter-attacks and threatening crosses.

Chinese winger Wu Lei was particularly dangerous down the right flank, continually exploiting the space Marcelo left behind him as the Brazilian pushed forward to support the attack.

Madrid really struggled to deal with Wu Lei’s pace in the early stages and had the 28-year-old been a little more confident in the final third, Espanyol could have easily found themselves a goal up before Zidane’s men had acclimatised to the match. However, Wu Lei was clearly suffering from some self-doubt after a terrible miss in a 1-0 defeat to Real Betis last time out.

But as the opening 45 minutes wore on, so Real Madrid’s dominance became clear. Zidane’s side finally started showing all the fluidity which has defined their title charge this season — fluidity Barcelona are sorely lacking right now — with Karim Benzema dropping deep to link play, the likes of Casemiro and Isco running beyond him and Marcelo continuing to attack without compromise down the left. They lined up in a 4-3-3 on paper but in reality, Real Madrid were playing without the need for a system, with every single outfield player happy to slip into another position in an almost Total Football-esque display of movement and interchanges.

This was exactly how Los Blancos opened the scoring just before half-time, with Marcelo sweeping a ball across the pitch from the left to none other than Sergio Ramos taking up a centre-forward position. His flick-on found Benzema who executed a beautiful Guti-esque back-heeled nutmeg to the onrushing Casemiro — the Brazilian duly fired home from close range. Liquid football in every sense of the term.

Espanyol didn’t roll over and die after the break. Given their precarious position at the bottom of La Liga, they simply cannot afford to right now. Wu Lei was once again presented with a great opportunity just after the break but his effort was weak and easily gathered by Thibaut Courtois. For all their effort and endeavour, that turned out to be Espanyol’s biggest chance of the second half.

Madrid only continued to assert their dominance from there. A brilliant positional interchange from Marcelo and Isco allowed the latter the space to deliver a dangerous cross to the far post, with Benzema meeting it to force a save from Diego Lopez.

If Zidane had anything to be disappointed with on Sunday night — and given his high standards, you can be sure he was — it was that his side failed to put the game to bed. To their credit, Espanyol played with discipline and courage, not backing down in the face of Madrid’s electric movement and quick passing to make sure the visitors’ clear cut chances remained restricted. However, a few long-range efforts aside, Periquitos expended most of their energy keeping the opposition quiet, rather than creating inroads of their own.

Espanyol 0-1 Real Madrid in five stats

  • Possession: Espanyol 31.4%-68.6% Real Madrid
  • Shots: Espanyol 8-14 Real Madrid
  • Shots on target: Espanyol 5-6 Real Madrid
  • Corners: Espanyol 1-5 Real Madrid
  • Successful passes: Espanyol 249-624 Real Madrid

Was this a perfect Real Madrid performance? Absolutely not. They didn’t put the game to bed after the break and were frustrated by an impressive Espanyol showing. Still, with energy, intelligence and understanding — especially in the first half — Los Blancos were able to control long stretches of this game to dig out the win, while the introduction of Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo after the break showed how dangerous they can also be in transition. Just another cog in the machine they’re becoming.

It is for these reasons that they’re the strongest team in Spain right now — the three points gained here simply confirm that in the standings as well.

Real Madrid’s remaining La Liga fixtures

  • Getafe (H)
  • Athletic Club (A)
  • Alaves (H)
  • Granada (A)
  • Villarreal (H)
  • Leganes (A)