After a goal-laden midday game, Real Madrid overcame Levante 3-2 at the Santiago Bernabeu.
The victory lifts Los Blancos to second, one point behind leaders Atlético Madrid. What did we learn?
1. International exile is good, actually
Karim Benzema last played for the French national team in October 2015, that’s nearly four years ago now. The reason for a player who has won three straight Champions Leagues and gone on to be one of the competition’s best scorers to be so excluded from the national side is down to some rather unpleasant personal issues. And Benzema will rue having missed out on the chance to win the 2018 World Cup.
Real Madrid, however, will be delighted at Benzema’s international exile. The Frenchman is a player who already struggles with injuries, picking up little knocks here and there that destabilise his season. Add in the stresses of international travel and the extra games he’d have to play and you can see how the extra workload would wear him down.
So whilst everyone else was returning from the international break, Benzema was fully fresh and boy did it show. The Frenchman was in devastating form against Levante, at his elusive best where none of the opponents were able to get near him. He opened the scoring with a delightful header, doubled Madrid’s lead with a placed effort and almost bagged a hat-trick after an incredible run. He was a constant source of brightness at the Santiago Bernabeu and will head into the Champions League in great confidence.
2. Absence makes the heart grows fonder
When James Rodriguez was last at Real Madrid you couldn’t see him getting into the team. He just seemed to be one of those players that Zinedine Zidane didn’t like, even though he was always pretty damn good when he played. Well he’s spent a while away at Bayern Munich, and it seems like that absence has made Zidane much more fond of him.
James Rodríguez's game by numbers vs. Levante:
100% aerial duels won
82% pass acc.
5 chances created
3 tackles made
Things we love to see: this. 💫 pic.twitter.com/Fn7e6OdVxN
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 14, 2019
True, he had to play him today because of a midfield injury crisis but play him is exactly what he did. And James responded with a delightful display from the middle of the pitch. Alright Levante didn’t really apply much pressure to him in the first half, and in fact their tactics allowed James to play on the front foot almost constantly.
The Colombian dominated as a result, including a wonderfully deft assist for Madrid’s second goal. He was comfortably the best attacking player on the pitch for Madrid, and it’s clear that absence has made Zidane more fond of him because when he was making his subs he didn’t remove James but left him out there to be the talisman.
3. Awesome Aitor gives Levante hope
Levante got the brakes beat off them at the Bernabeu. The score was 3-2 and that seems close but it’s genuinely not an exaggeration to say that with the number of quality looks at goal they got, Real Madrid could have scored 7 or 8. Yet they didn’t, and Aitor Fernandez is why.
The Basque goalkeeper was absolutely sensational at the Bernabeu, diving about all over the place to block shot after shot (he made 8 saves in total). Real Madrid are a side that need no invitation to shoot and so even half-chances become dangerous situations against them, but Aitor didn’t give Los Blancos an inch despite his defenders being happy to give them a mile. If Aitor can keep playing at a level like this then you can’t rule Levante out of any game no matter how badly they are being hammered.
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4. Change the game
There was a 12 minute period in the second half where this game changed from an absolute shoeing to an actual contest where Levante were equal participants and the differences all came through substitutions. First Nikola Vukcevic came off for Enis Bardhi after 56 minutes, and instantly the Macedonian magician added a link between midfield and attack and a genuine touch of ambition into Levante’s performance.
Then on the hour mark Real Madrid withdrew captain Sergio Ramos and defensive midfielder, bringing on Eden Hazard and Eder Militao. This instantly removed the defensive power from Madrid’s midfield, which was now a three consisting of Hazard, James Rodríguez and then Toni Kroos holding. That is about as defensively weak as you can get at the elite level, and Levante began exposing it.
Paco Lopez’s counter to Zidane’s subs was masterful. On 68 minutes Levante switched from a five-man defence to a four-man one, bringing an extra body (sub Melero) into midfield, putting Roger Marti up-front. Suddenly the visitors had the numerical superiority in midfield and with the captain José Luis Moralés out wide flying into space, they caused Madrid no end of problems. Melero scored their second and they came were a fantastic Thibaut Courtois save away from drawing level.
12 minutes, five substitutions, one game completely changed.
5. Hazard Warning
Eden Hazard came on for the last half hour of the game to make his Real Madrid debut and it was far from the warning to their rivals that Zinedine Zidane would have hoped given that his side were 3-1 up and cruising. There were a few moments where a flash of Hazard at his best was visible, he looks leaner and quicker than he ever did at Chelsea – burning away from defenders on more than one occasion. But equally, his touch was off. He was in the open field and went for a one-on-one only to be stopped dead in his tracks, multiple times! Open field tackles on Eden Hazard in full flight should be impossible, but he’s clearly nowhere near 100% yet.
The warning in the game was Real Madrid’s defence. Los Blancos really do have problems when it comes to keeping the ball even away from their goal, let alone out of the back of their net. Levante barely had any of the ball yet they were still able to penetrate the Madrid midfield and defence at will; being stopped mostly by a great Raphael Varane performance and one key save from Thibaut Courtois.
Speaking of Courtois, that stoppage time save was the only one he made all game and he has now gone seven months without registering a clean sheet for Real Madrid. The club as a whole only has five clean sheets (from 26 games) in all of 2019, and three of those belong to Keylor Navas who is now at PSG.
Courtois is obviously the chief victim but the entire Madrid team is at fault, both on an individual level and a systemic one. Zinedine Zidane’s 4-1-4-1 is nice but it puts an enormous burden on Casemiro as the only defensive anchor (particularly if Eden Hazard continues to be deployed centrally), Madrid’s defenders aren’t anywhere near the forces they were at their peak and so today, even before the game-changing subs, Madrid’s defensive solidity was lacking.
Real Madrid have problems.