Football Features

“Toni Kroos will always find a way” – winners and losers as Real Madrid go top of La Liga

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:16, 26 January 2020

In a stilted night of football, Real Madrid beat Valladolid 0-1 to go top of La Liga.

The match was a hard-fought victory where each side had a goal disallowed for offside. A headed strike from a super squaddie set the table for a massive Madrid win. Who were the winners and losers?

Winner: Nacho

José Ignacio Fernandez Iglesias has had a rough time of things this season. The man known as Nacho recently turned 30 and will have worried about his future at Real Madrid. His contract expires this summer and he has spent the majority of this season out injured with ligament troubles. He had seen some action as an emergency left-back, but with Ferland Mendy finding fitness that avenue was closed.

Alvaro Odriozola, the club’s back-up right-back was sent out on loan just days ago but no one expected to that to benefit Nacho. The general idea was that Eder Militao would be the club’s emergency cover there, should Dani Carvajal be unavailable as he was tonight against Valladolid. But Zinedine Zidane gave Nacho the start, and for a while it didn’t look like it was working.

And then late on, Toni Kroos sent a cross into the box and Nacho, up for a corner seconds earlier, thumped a header into the far corner of the net to put Real Madrid ahead. The goal was absolutely massive as it won Los Blancos the game and sent them to the top of La Liga, and for Nacho personally it represented sweet vindication – which is why he celebrated it so passionately, running over to embrace Zidane, as if to thank him for the chance; the chance that he took with ruthless conviction.

Loser: Luka Jovic

Last week Luka Jovic’s lovely flick set Casemiro through to score for Real Madrid. It was a nice assist that capped an alright performance and the Serbian would have hoped to play a part as Madrid battled against Valladolid, struggling to break them down. Maybe not start with Karim Benzema available again, but at least be properly involved.

And yet, Jovic spent the entire second-half warming up on the touchline. Yet Zidane only called on him in the 91st minute to waste time. Before that, even as the minutes ticked away and it seemed like another body in attack could tip the scales for Los Blancos, Zidane was unmoved. It was yet another sign for Jovic that he has a long way to go in order to make his dream move to the Santiago Bernabeu work out.

Winner: Toni Kroos

Toni Kroos is having one hell of a season. The German pass-master has been liberated by Fede Valverde’s introduction to midfield, as the Uruguayan pairing with Casemiro freed him to push forward into attack and make things happen. And sure enough, he has done that.

What makes Kroos so impressive, however, is that even if he isn’t playing well he can still find a way to hurt you. Valladolid’s hard-working midfield really neutered Madrid’s midfield in open play and Los Blancos struggled to break their hosts down. From set-pieces, however, Toni Kroos stood tall. He created two goals with his devilish delivery, the first was ruled out as Casemiro was just offside, but the second for Nacho won the game (and technically was from open play but was basically a wide free-kick after his corner was blocked).

Plan all you want, Toni Kroos will always find a way.

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Loser: Sergio

Sergio Gonzalez knew that his Valladolid side were outgunned against Real Madrid. They sat 16th with just 22 points this season. That put them five points clear of the relegation places, but that is a gap that could be clawed back in no time at all.

Still, they played Real Madrid with an intense fervor. Sergio’s gameplan of man-marking in midfield worked so well that it shut down Los Blancos’ starting midfield diamond and force Zinedine Zidane into a stylistic change. Things looked like they were heading towards a 0-0 draw, but then Sergio didn’t act when he saw his side dropping deeper and deeper.

Valladolid defended deep in the first-half but they broke with more authority via their diamond. As the second-half wore on they let Madrid have more and more territory, especially in the wide areas without reaction. Eventually that backfired on them as Nacho popped up with his gamewinning goal, shattering Sergio’s glorious gameplan.

Winner: Thibaut Courtois

Real Madrid put three clean sheets in a row together at the end of 2019, their best run in La Liga for ages. That streak was ended last week by Sevilla, but today Courtois got his Zamora campaign back on track with a solid display. The Belgian made some stops from Valladolid, cleared a couple of crosses from under his crossbar, and most importantly dominated his area with supreme authority. 10 clean sheets, 10 goals conceded, ThiGOAT is back.

Loser: Barcelona

There can be no bigger loser than Barcelona, however. The Blaugrana came into the gameweek level on points with their historic rivals, but remaining top on goal difference. Well, their trip to the Mestalla was a disaster. Not only did they lose but they lost by two clear goals, wiping out their goal difference advantage over Los Blancos.

So now, after tonight’s result, not only are Madrid three points clear at the top of La Liga (with plenty of teething problems for Quique Setién to come, you’d expect) but they also hold the tie-breaker between the sides. This means the only way for the Blaugrana to regain top spot is to hunt their rivals down and overtake them on points (or just match them result-for-result and then beating them in the season’s second Clásico thus claiming the head-to-head tiebreaker). All in all, it’s a lot of work for a side very much in transition.