Real Madrid made a commanding return to action with a dominant 3-1 win over Eibar at the Estadio Alfredo di Stefano on Sunday evening.
With Barcelona hammering Mallorca 4-0 on Friday night, Los Blancos knew nothing less than three points would do in their La Liga comeback. The victory moved them back to within two points of their fierce rivals as the race for the title hots up.
It took just 182 seconds for Toni Kroos to fire Zinedine Zidane’s men into the lead, firing home a laser-guided shot into the far corner from range after some fine work from Eden Hazard and Karim Benzema.
Sergio Ramos added the second on the half-hour mark, charging out of defence and combining with Benzema and Hazard, with the latter setting up the Real Madrid captain with a chance to score in an empty net.
And the game was effectively settled just seven minutes later, with Hazard playing a one-two with Benzema before seeing his shot saved by Eibar goalkeeper Marko Dmitrovic. However, Eibar’s clearance could only find Marcelo on the edge of the box — the Brazilian left-back controlled the ball and expertly fired it just inside Dmitrovic’s far post.
Pedro Bigas scored a consolation goal in comical fashion after the break — look away now, Thibaut Courtois — and Eibar did push Madrid during the second half. However, it was a true piledriver of a first-half performance from the hosts, with goals from Kroos, Ramos and Marcelo. But they certainly weren’t the stars of the show. Did you notice the two names mentioned in the build-up to all three goals? That’s right, after months of misunderstandings and getting under each other’s feet, Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard finally found their rhythm, forming the partnership Zidane has been dreaming about ever since shelling out £88.5m for the Belgian wing wizard last summer.
Freedom to roam
Too often this season, Hazard has been restricted to a peripheral role hugging the left touchline, unable to search for space and combine with teammates across the pitch as he so effectively did during his Chelsea days.
Sure, get Hazard on the ball in a one-on-one in these positions and he’ll glide past the defender as if he wasn’t there, but all too often, Madrid’s play has become congested on his flank, with Benzema naturally drifting out to the lift to create space in the middle and Marcelo pushing high up to support the attack.
Today, the shackles were well and truly taken off. Yes, Hazard still nominally started on the left, but it felt very much like Zidane — celebrating his 200th game in charge of Real Madrid — had given him licence to roam and pick up the ball wherever he wanted.
Madrid’s first goal was the result of his fine combination play with Benzema on the left, before drifting inside to create the time and space for the Frenchman to pick out Kroos on the edge of the box.
Los Blancos’ second and third goals were the result of the duo’s combination on the right-hand side of the pitch — a smart switch of play by Benzema for Ramos’ goal and some wonderful interplay between Real’s deadly pairing forcing the rebound for Marcelo’s.
Eden Hazard has provided his first LaLiga assist since October 2019.
Just the second of his Real Madrid league career. 🎯 pic.twitter.com/D2zDAgv9yC
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) June 14, 2020
Hazard looked rejuvenated with the positional freedom allowed to him and all the while, Benzema was able to drop deep to collect possession and play in that false nine role he has become so well known for over the years. Few strikers can connect and link play as well as Benzema does and his full repertoire of movement and passing was on show here.
Effort and energy
By his own confession, Hazard has struggled with his diet and fitness since joining Real Madrid. Persistent injuries have curtailed his momentum, while lockdown has presented the Belgian with a number of issues when it comes to nutritional discipline.
On Sunday, though, we caught a glimpse of the Hazard which tore the Premier League apart for years with Chelsea. The Hazard that wasn’t just ruthlessly clinical in the box, terrifying on the dribble or mesmeric with his passes, but also tenacious off the ball, pestering defenders like a terrier. And almost impossible to shove off the ball once he’d won it back.
On a number of occasions, Hazard could be seen charging down Eibar defenders, putting them under pressure and hoping to catch them in possession in the attacking third. On one occasion, after just six minutes, he came agonisingly close to capitalising on a heavy touch from Paulo Oliveira, only for the centre-back to recover at the final moment. Had Hazard gained possession, he’d have been charging in on goal.
Okay, so the Belgian didn’t do much in the way of direct tackling or ball-winning, but his persistence in the press and intelligence in blocking out passing lanes did more than an attempted Hazard tackle ever could.
The blueprint moving forward?
It’s important to remember this is just one game, the first match back after a long break. Hazard and Benzema were fantastic individually and as part of the collective, working up a dynamic, almost innate understanding with each other, but it might just be the case that Eibar were caught cold upon their return.
However, regardless, Sunday’s game still gave Zidane a mouth-watering glimpse of what could be when his star attackers combine. Fluid movement, precision passing and mesmerising combination play which, at times, left Eibar’s defenders seeing stars and unsure what position they should actually be playing in.
Real Madrid have a La Liga title to win, something they’ve done all too sparingly over the past decade. If Zidane is to catch the Blaugrana, he needs this prototype Hazard/Benzema partnership to become the real thing, week in, week out. At least now, he has the blueprint.