Luka Modric kept Real Madrid’s title challenge alive – just about – by firing home a magnificent winner in the dying stages of a pulsating clash with impressive Granada.
The Croatian, who was outstanding all night and claimed his first league goal since September 2014, had earlier played an unfortunate role in Granada’s equaliser as he lost possession after running into referee Jesus Gil Manzano, allowing Youssef El-Arabi to score.
That goal cancelled out a first-half strike from Karim Benzema, and Madrid were on the ropes for much of the contest against a Granada team who will surely escape the relegation zone if they continue to play in the same manner.
From the outset it was clear that the hosts hadn’t set out with the sole intention of defending, and their positive and ambitious approach regularly created problems for Madrid during the evenly contested opening stages.
Real keeper Keylor Navas was forced to sprint well out of his goal to make hasty clearances twice inside the opening 10 minutes, and lively home team winger Isaac Success curled a shot wide after a dangerous incursion into the penalty area.
Check out Luka Modrić's 85th minute game winner for Real Madrid today...a rocket from 23 yards out! https://t.co/KQKyUKR8nn— CroatianSoccerReport (@CroatianSoccer) February 7, 2016
Most of Madrid’s danger was coming down the right wing, and that proved to be the source of their opener on the half-hour mark as Isco split open the home defence by releasing Dani Carvajal down the wing, and with plenty of time and space the full-back retained his composure to pick out the unmarked Benzema for an easy finish.
But Granada were not discouraged by falling behind and continued to play with plenty of attacking intent, contributing fully to an unexpectedly open and entertaining contest. They frequently threatened to level the scoring before the break, coming close when veteran striker David Barral – making his full debut after a January move from Al Dhafra – had a shot well blocked by Raphael Varane, before full-back Miguel Lopes sliced a shot well wide after an incisive passing move.
The end to end pattern of the game continued in the second half, with Granada again not far away from equalising when attacking midfielder Ruben Rochina showcased his long-range shooting prowess with a 25-yard strike which fizzed just too high, while Navas was forced into a leaping save from Barral’s header from a corner.
Modric was then the architect of a golden opportunity for Madrid to put the game to bed, but Benzema saw his low shot brilliantly saved by Andres Fernandez after being sent clean through by the midfielder’s perceptive pass.
But Modric then suffered from an ill stroke of fortune as he collided with referee Manzano to lose possession, and Rochina took full advantage by sliding a neat pass into the path of substitute El-Arabi, who finished well.
Granada continued to threaten with El-Arabi rightly having a goal disallowed for offside and Success having a penalty appeal waved away as he went down under a challenge from Navas, with Manzano getting a tough decision spot-on because the Madrid keeper got a firm hand on the ball as the home winger attempted to round him.
Madrid were becoming ragged with Granada the more convincing team, but it was still a wide open contest with both teams looking more than capable of scoring and visiting substitute Jese threatened with a shot which was deflected behind.
Just when it seemed that Madrid’s title challenge was going up in smoke, Modric found space on the edge of the penalty area and – this time unimpeded by the referee – advanced to smash an unstoppable strike into the top left corner for a sensational goal.
This time there was no chance for Granada to respond, and Madrid celebrated three vital points.
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Zinedine Zidane insists Real Madrid still have an outside chance of winning the Primera Division even after drawing 1-1 at Real Betis and falling four points behind leaders Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.
The Frenchman guided Madrid to 5-0 and 5-1 victories over Deportivo La Coruna and Sporting Gijon in his first games since succeeding Rafael Benitez in the dugout, but was unable to continue his winning start in Seville.
His side fell behind to a brilliant strike from Alvaro Cejudo after just seven minutes and although they dominated the final stages of the game after Karim Benzema equalised in the second period, Madrid were unable to find a winner, meaning they could fall seven points adrift of Barcelona if the leaders win their game in hand.
However, Zidane told a press conference: “We haven’t given up on the league, we are going to continue to work hard, we have to look on the positive side.
“We dropped two points and that’s negative but we have to believe that we can recover and remember that you have to fight for the league until the end.
“We couldn’t make a good start, we knew that it was going to be difficult here and it was difficult from the start, but as the game progressed we played a lot better and we could have got a lot more from it than we did, but that’s football. We just lacked a bit of luck.”
The coach also praised the performance of James Rodriguez, who set up Benzema’s goal in his first start for four matches.
“I told him that he needed to move around more, not just on the wing, but inside too, and I’m really pleased with his performance, it was the first game he started for me and I’m very happy for him.
“I think the team were stronger physically today and the good thing is that they were stronger towards the end of the second half. We are going in the right direction, we have only been here for two weeks. But I’m very proud of what we did tonight even though we dropped two points.”
Defender Pepe, meanwhile, admitted Madrid face an almighty task if they want to try and catch Barcelona and Atletico.
“It’s difficult, we know it’s going to be very tough, but we need to keep going,” he told Movistar. “We deserved to win today, but that’s football.”
The Portuguese believes his side deserved to take all three points from the match, and pointed to the fact they had two penalty appeals, one from Benzema and the other from Cristiano Ronaldo, turned down.
“We wanted to win today but their goal was a big setback for us,” he said. “They had a bit of luck, we tried to launch a comeback but it wasn’t possible. We fought and worked really hard as a team. In the first half all they did was score their goal, after that we got into the game a bit more and pressured them by playing with more intensity, and they couldn’t get out of their half.
“With a little bit of luck, perhaps if Cristiano had won that penalty, things would have been different. But we all worked hard as a team and everyone played their part.”
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