Real Madrid’s desultory campaign continued with dropped points at local rivals Leganes on Monday night, with the visitors claiming a 1-1 draw as Karim Benzema’s second-half strike cancelled out a fine curled opener by Jonathan Silva.
It wasn’t a bad display from Los Blancos, but they could not convert their overall superiority into a winning goal and the lack of punch shown by his team made it clear just how much work head coach Zinedine Zidane faces to turn his team into contenders next season.
In particular, there must be a clear priority in the summer – and that kicks off our talking points from the game:
MISSING THAT CERTAIN SOMETHING
In many ways, this was a promising enough performance from Real Madrid.
Unlike past occasions this season, the team looked solid and organised. They showed a good shape defensively and were able to dominate possession without too much trouble against an opposing side who were largely content to sit back and play on the break.
It certainly wasn’t a bad display from Zidane’s men, who were in almost total control of the vast majority of action and left goalkeeper Keylor Navas with very little to do (he hadn’t made a single save before Leganes went ahead on the stroke of half-time). There was, however, just one problem – and it was a significant one: they hardly ever looked like scoring.
There was only one shot on target in the first half, an early effort from Marco Asensio following a perfectly weighted through ball from Isco. A few more followed in the second period, but not enough to reflect the team’s overall control of the game, and unconvincing finishing – especially from Asensio – meant Madrid had to settle for a draw thanks to Benzema’s strike.
Perhaps it’s getting rather tedious to continually harp back to Cristiano Ronaldo, but the presence of a penalty-box predator like the Portugal superstar is exactly what this team is missing.
It doesn’t have to be ‘another’ Ronaldo, but Los Blancos are in desperate need of a player who wants to get in the box and fire in strikes on goal. This summer will be crucial.
BENZEMA TO THE RESCUE…AGAIN
The one positive to emerge from Ronaldo’s departure has been the opportunity it has afforded to Benzema to become more of a focal point in his team’s attack.
And the Frenchman has certainly delivered, with his equaliser in this encounter taking him to 27 goals in all competitions, giving him a chance to overhaul his career-best 32 in the title-winning 2011/12 campaign.
Benzema is in particularly rich form at the moment, netting five goals in his last four games and being directly responsible for six points during that period (a winner against Huesca, both goals in the 2-1 victory over Eibar and the leveller at Leganes). He also linked play superbly, creating chances for Asensio and Marcelo with a pair of beautiful touches.
Although he is now 31-years old, the Frenchman’s immediate future in the team looks secure, but just think how much he would benefit from the presence of a penalty box predator alongside him – somebody to finish off what he starts and provide another source of goals.
After Benzema’s tally of 18, the team’s second-highest scorer in the league is Gareth Bale with only eight and, returning to the point already made above, the need to give Benzema a decent strike partner is paramount.
LONG-BALL LEGANES SHATTER THE STEREOTYPES
There is a common misconception about La Liga among some football fans – especially those who never watch it – that the Spanish top flight is a boring procession of tippy-tappy teams who overplay the ball sideways and backwards through midfield and never take one pass to get the ball forward when ten will do.
Leganes are a shining example that the stereotype is wrong. Mauricio Pellegrino’s team are not pretty to watch.
They are not interested in clever passing triangles. They do not insist upon walking the ball into the net.
But they are highly effective, and outperforming all expectations by leaping into the fringes of the race for a place in next season’s Europa League.
Although it was exquisitely finished by Silva, the opening goal showed exactly what kind of team Leganes are: it came from a long throw from the right flank, flicked on at the near post, battled for inside the box and then laid back to the edge of the area for a shot on goal. Tony Pulis, eat your heart out.
A few weeks ago, Real Betis boss Quique Setien – the purist’s purist – decried the tactical approach of Leganes by saying they “only do four things.” But even Setien would acknowledge that Leganes do those things very well, and there is more than one way of winning a football match. Even in La Liga.
Real Madrid prospect Vinicius Junior admitted that the players get a little nervous around boss Zinedine Zidane at times.
The Brazilian also spoke in admiration of the Frenchman and about how he takes care of everything and ensures that the players need to focus only on their football.
“When a guy like that – who played at such a high level – is on the bench and says anything, you pay attention, don’t you?” Vinicius said to Esporte Espetacular, according to Marca.
“Sometimes we get a little nervous when we are going to speak to him.
“He does everything for you, so you only worry about playing football.”
Vinicius is confident that he will enjoy regular playing time under Zidane. The team is now preparing for next season and the manager is willing to provide everyone a chance to prove themselves.
“I know that Zidane gives chances to everyone,” Vinicius added.
“We are now preparing for next season.
“I am calm because I know that when I have recovered [from my injury], my chance [to impress] will appear.”
La Liga‘s weekend action comes to a close with a local derby for Real Madrid, with Los Blancos making the short trip to Leganes for a game which has the look of another banana skin for Zinedine Zidane’s men.
Leganes are in fine form while the visiting team are still finding their feet under the French coach, whose selection decisions are sure to raise a few eyebrows, whatever they are. Let’s look ahead to the action with the key talking points.
Another ‘Leganazo’ for Zidane?
Recently returned Real boss Zidane does not have fond memories of taking on Leganes, who handed the Frenchman one of his most humiliating defeats during his last stint in the Bernabeu hotseat with a 2-1 exit from the Copa del Rey in January 2018.
Although he has never said so publicly, many people believe that night – which quickly became nicknamed as the ‘Leganazo’ by the Spanish media – was the first time that Zidane set his mind upon leaving the club at the end of the season after deciding he could take the team no further, something he duly did despite finishing the campaign with his third consecutive Champions League title.
LEGANAZO!— Andy West (@andywest01) January 24, 2018
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Gaining revenge over the Pepineros on this occasion will not be straightforward at all, because Leganes are in excellent form. They have collected seven points from their last three games to ease relegation fears, and even open up an outside chance of challenging for a European place.
The hosts are particularly dangerous in their small but atmospheric Butarque stadium, only losing twice at home in La Liga this season and already claiming the scalp of Barcelona. Mauricio Pellegrino’s team are a tough and uncompromising physical outfit who will certainly not roll over, and Zidane’s men will need to roll up their sleeves and work hard if they want to avoid another embarrassment at the hands of their tiny crosstown rivals.
Real condemned to the graveyard shift
Perhaps the biggest indication yet of just how poor this season has been for Real Madrid is not the number of points they have, or the fact that they are already out of both cup competitions, or even that they are on their third manager of the campaign. Perhaps, rather, it is the timing of this trip to Leganes: 21:00 (GST: 23:00) on a Monday.
This is the graveyard shift of Spanish football, a kick-off time which has proved to be so unpopular with supporters that a range of passionate protests across the country have led to the fixture slot being abandoned next season.
But with most of us reflecting upon the league action of the weekend gone by and starting to look forward to the resumption of the Champions League in the coming days, Real’s fall from grace is reflected in their ‘slap in the face’ of being scheduled to play in the Monday night slot usually the sole preserve of lesser lights.
In that unusual scenario, there is a danger that Real’s superstars will struggle to rise to the unusual occasion of a Monday contest, and Zidane will have to ensure the motivation of his players matches that of their opponents, who will certainly not lack any impetus in their desire to claim a famous scalp.
Future ruling the present
A notable aspect of Zidane’s first few games back in charge has been his willingness to rotate through his squad, fuelling all sorts of speculation about potential changes to the squad during what is expected to be an extremely busy summer.
Practically every question faced by Zidane during his pre-game press conference on Sunday focused upon his plans for the future, with the potential sale of players such as Toni Kroos, Isco, Gareth Bale and Marcos Llorente overwhelming any interest in the fact that a game is actually taking place.
It’s a situation that Zidane has become accustomed to since his return to the club, with his every utterance scrutinised and speculated upon in an attempt to read through the lines and conclude that his bland statement ‘I like player X’ really means ‘I want to sell player X’.
Zidane has a big squad so a few players will naturally have to miss out, and whoever doesn’t make the starting XI will find themselves at the centre of ‘shock departure’ stories in a weird scenario whereby the future is decisively ruling the present.
One change on Monday night could be the return of Dani Carvajal following six weeks out through injury, while Toni Kroos could be forced out through illness … or does that actually mean Zidane is preparing to sell the German midfielder? We will find out in the summer, but the speculation will continue unabated until then.