Cristiano Ronaldo came to the rescue again as Real Madrid followed up their thumping win over Paris Saint-Germain with a narrow victory against Eibar.
Ronaldo scored twice, his second six minutes from the end, as Real won 2-1 and avoided another slip-up in La Liga. Ivan Ramis had equalised for Eibar shortly after half-time.
His double means Ronaldo has now scored in seven consecutive games and has a remarkable 13 goals overall in that period.
Real move four points behind second-placed Atletico Madrid, who will restore that gap to seven with a win over Celta Vigo on Sunday. Eibar stay eighth.
Here, we look at how Los Blancos players fared at the Ipurua Municipal Stadium.
Keylor Navas – 6: A strong presence between the sticks, did well to stop a cross-goal Kike effort and was generally under heavy pressure from hosts, particularly in first-half. Could do nothing about the goal but did he have to tip over Gonzalo Escalante’s centre that led to corner? Probably not.
Dani Carvajal – 6: Had trouble dealing with the threat of Japan star Takashi Inui and often felt isolated on the right. Lacked protection from Real’s overworked middle but came up trumps for the winner, putting the ball on a sixpence for Ronaldo to head home.
Sergio Ramos – 4: The skipper was at sea for Eibar’s equaliser, losing veteran Ivan Ramis who then headed home from close range. Big lapse could have really cost Madrid and also guilty of overplaying the ball in areas where he should have cleared danger.
Raphael Varane – 5: Felt the effects of first-half head collision with Dani Garcia and it was a nasty one at that. Taken off for Nacho after 27 minutes.
Marcelo 7 – Capa gave Brazilian plenty of early problems down the left but left-back was still a roving force going forward and always provided the Whites with an outlet.
Toni Kroos – 6: Stepped up full return from knee injury with 70 odd minutes. Lacked some composure with first-touch but wholehearted commitment was there. Ran out of legs in second period.
Casemiro – 6: Involved in a possible handball penalty appeal in first-half and was lucky to escape but generally went about his business with typical gusto. Very much the mainstay and man Zidane relies on in central midfield.
Luka Modric – 8: Making his first appearance since the Champions League first leg win over PSG, the veteran playmaker’s finesse and vision was crucial in a Madrid side devoid of creativity. Laid ball on a plate for Ronaldo and should have scored after mazy run on 55 minutes. Real’s best player.
Isco – 5: Form woes continue as the Spaniard’s touch and passing was off. Still searching to get back to his 2017 form, with substitution on 71 minutes summing it up.
Gareth Bale – 6: Booked early on and involved in some good forward runs but struggled for any real kind of cutting edge. Lacked sharpness.
Cristiano Ronaldo – 8: Frustrated figure early on but scored sublime opener following first-class chest control and finish. Constant bright spark despite being victim of heavy Joan Jordan challenge. Twice denied by Marko Dmitrovic in second period before eventually having his say and scoring a headed winner with six minutes to go.
Nacho – 6: Slotted in to usual centre-half berth but looked shaky alongside Ramos as Real dallied all too often with possession around their penalty area.
Lucas Vazquez – 6: Gave Madrid some fresh legs as the away side saw off a late Eibar onslaught.
Karim Benzema – 5: Offered very little during his 25-minute stay on the pitch.
Rumours have reignited over Bale’s future since he was forced to start on the bench for Real’s 2-1 Champions League win over Paris St Germain on Tuesday.
But Zidane is adamant Bale is not going anywhere and is likely to restore him to his starting line-up when Real face the potentially difficult trip to eighth-placed Eibar on Saturday.
Zidane told a press conference: “Gareth is not lacking anything. He is part of a squad full of good players. He didn’t start in either of the last 16 games (against Paris) but I haven’t got any problem with him.
“There is no problem with him being on the bench – I spoke with him and he knows what it’s about. I pick a team every three days and for me Gareth is crucial – but there are other important players as well.”
Real’s win over PSG lifted some of the pressure on Zidane, whose team languish in third place in LaLiga, 15 points behind leaders Barcelona, and will plunge back into crisis if they fail to win in Ipurua.
“I’m not here to convince anyone,” Zidane said. “I don’t want to change people’s opinions. Right now everyone is saying I’m the best, a tactician, but it’s ridiculous – if I lose to Eibar they’ll say I’m the worst.
⚽🔙 The lads are back in training at #RMCity after Tuesday night’s victory in Paris!
— Real Madrid C.F.🇺🇸🇬🇧 (@realmadriden) March 8, 2018
“It’s hard to stay at the top level throughout the course of the season. When you drop points on the teams above and a gap opens up, it’s difficult.
“But in our work day to day this is my message – that we will not give in. LaLiga is not finished. We’re going to keep fighting because anything can happen in football.”
Zidane is faced with some big decisions for the trip to Eibar, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos also pushing to return to his starting line-up after joining Bale on the bench for the midweek Champions League trip.
Isco is also in contention for return with Zidane mulling over whether he can afford to hand the talismanic Cristiano Ronaldo a rest after he played a full part in the recent busy spell.
Zidane is under no illusions about the size of the task facing his side against Eibar, who successfully battled relegation this season and have gone from strength to strength, despite a recent blip which has seen them win just one of their last four games.
“We’re in for another tough game at a difficult place to go,” added Zidane. “Eibar are having a fantastic season. They’re a brave and disciplined team and I’m not surprised by their league position. They are going to make life hard for us.”
Provided by Press Association Sport
But, given Real’s Champions League progress through to the last eight has been seamless, hopes of a third consecutive European Cup crown have helped to keep the flame burning in a season which could have all too easily been over by now.
As it is, Zinedine Zidane‘s men will be happy enough to tick along domestically and try and close the gap on second-placed Atletico Madrid, with their city neighbours holding a seven-point advantage over the Whites.
On Saturday, the Spanish giants travel to eighth-placed Eibar (4pm UAE time), with the league minnows enjoying a successful campaign to date.
Here, we assess three key talking points:
LOS BLANCOS CAN AFFORD TO REST CRISTIANO AGAIN
The club legend has actually missed two of Madrid’s last four La Liga fixtures as Zinedine Zidane remains increasingly cautious over saving the 33-year-old’s legs. Ronaldo, of course, is as fit as anyone but with fine game management Real can prolong his outstanding 2018 form and indeed his career further down the track.
Ronaldo came off with just over ten minutes to go against Getafe last time out but completed maximum minutes at the Parc des Princes. Although Eibar are going very well domestically in eighth, Real can afford to make the long trip to the northern tip of Spain without their talisman – giving him much-needed rest with Atletico to come on April 8 and both legs of the Champions League quarter-finals either side.
With fixtures against Girona and Las Palmas also slated between the Eibar and Atletico games, it makes sense to use him sparingly over the next two weeks.
He’s scored 15 goals in 11 matches this year and will want to keep on playing but Real hierarchy and the club’s sports science team seemingly have more power than ever to pull rank over this argument now.
It should also provide the likes of Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema with an opportunity to shine, given both are still under-increasing pressure to perform after stop-start 2018s.
MATEO KOVACIC’S COMING OF AGE AT THE RIGHT TIME
The Croat turned in arguably his best showing yet in a Real shirt in the French capital and proved to Zidane that he made the right choice to stick with the 23-year-old, even with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric back in the reckoning after injury.
The former Inter Milan talent was an energetic beat at the heart of a more rigid 4-4-2 system, dovetailing nicely with Marco Asensio, goal-scorer Casemiro and Lucas Vazquez in a Madrid side that was certainly more youthful and pacey. Kovacic’s time at the Bernabeu has been indifferent and underwhelming since joining in 2015, but he looks to be finally coming into his own and indeed the Madridistas have never lost a Champions League match in which he has played (15 wins, two draws).
Kovacic deserves to be at the fulcrum of the midfield moving forward and Tuesday night felt like a watershed moment, with his supreme pass accuracy of 95 per cent being proof that Real have other options they can trust now and don’t just need to rely on Modric and Kroos’ experience – or even playmaker Isco, who hasn’t been at his best for a while.
The platform for him is now set for a big end to the season and it’s an exciting thought for Madrid fans that his most telling contributions are still to come.
MADRID ARE UNITED BEHIND ZIDANE
The Frenchman has had to bat away criticism from all comers and all corners this term. Of course, tactically speaking and results-wise, a good chunk of it was merited due to a poor La Liga campaign.
But Zidane, away from the glare of the media spotlight, has clearly been a calming and supportive influence for his players. Today’s stars need an arm around the shoulder more so than in years gone by and the former midfield maestro has been unequivocal in his backing, which has seen Real win eight out of their past 10 matches.
It’s no surprises that Real Madrid’s social media team released behind-the-scenes dressing room celebrations after the victory over the Parisians, really going to show the unity Zidane has with his squad and personal connection – particularly with the senior members.
As he did during his playing days, he has the managerial midas touch and that shouldn’t be underestimated. You have to feel that Los Blancos are now in a good mindset to make this season more memorable than it looked like it would be at the turn of the year.
— Real Madrid C.F. (@realmadrid) March 6, 2018