Maligned Gareth Bale was a shock starter when 10-man Real Madrid produced a gritty 3-1 win at Celta Vigo to open up their 2019/20 La Liga campaign in impressive fashion.
Bale, 30, had been pushed towards the exit door throughout the summer by unimpressed head coach Zinedine Zidane. But a combination of fate and necessity saw the Wales forward begin at probable relegation candidates – and he replied with a sublime assist for ex-France centre forward Karim Benzema’s close-range opener on 12 minutes.
A slender offside call on Iago Aspas, via the video assistant referee, would deny the hosts parity just before the break after winger Brais Mendez had slotted in. This lifeline appeared used up on 55 minutes when the same system deemed Ballon d’Or holder Luka Modric’s clumsy foul on Denis Suarez worthy of a red card.
But determined Los Blancos – mindful of champions Barcelona’s 1-0 loss at Athletic Bilbao on Friday – doubled their lead on 61 minutes through Germany midfielder Toni Kroos’s rocket and substitute Lucas Vazquez converted after a fine team move on 80 minutes. A fantastic solo effort from 18-year-old Iker Losada, which found the bottom corner, then came far too late for Celta.
Here are the talking points:
WE SAW THE ‘REAL’ MADRID
11 - Real Madrid have won 11 of their last 14 visits to Celta in LaLiga (D1 L2), more than any other away side in the 21st century. Cozy. pic.twitter.com/Vc4YHfx2n1— OptaJose (@OptaJose) August 17, 2019
An XI that contained none of Madrid’s €303 million worth of summer additions should have ensured the outside public gained little insight into their hopes.
This was, emphatically, not the case at Balaidos.
Adversity brought out the worst in a feckless fallen giant last term, who finished a distant third in La Liga and relinquished their three-season hold on the Champions League during the first knockout stage.
That this was followed by a chaotic pre-season detailed by two wins from seven matches, 18 goals conceded and wild oscillations between 3-5-2, 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations strengthened the sense of panic. Injury to €100 million addition Eden Hazard on the eve of the opener did not help, either.
Madrid were on the team sheet as a 4-3-3. In reality, they were a strict 4-1-4-1 as the superb Casemiro anchored midfield and an axis of Kroos and Modric led the press.
The aforementioned Brazil anchor’s winning of the ball and lightning counter for Benzema’s goal exemplified what Zidane wants. For the remaining players to then choke Celta and emerge 3-1 winners with 10 men spoke volumes about renewed desire.
Plentiful mitigation comes from Celta’s 17th-placed finish and an 11th win in 14 visits there by Los Blancos.
But from a round in which Barca floundered out the starting blocks, positivity abounds, at last, for their El Clasico rivals.
THE LONG WAY BACK?
The Madrid soap opera experienced another unexpected plot twist in Galacia.
Bale had been cast by Zidane as this summer’s bete noire. The Wales attacker was ignored upon pre-season’s start, almost moved to China, forcibly told by the French supremo “it would be better if he leaves tomorrow” and then got into trouble for reportedly playing golf at the same time as his team-mates lost to Tottenham Hotspur in Munich.
At the end of last month, the idea of the former world’s-most-expensive player starting the opener was unalloyed farce. Even Friday’s announcement of Hazard’s thigh problem did not guarantee anything.
Yet when thrust into the XI – with another outcast in James Rodriguez on the substitute’s bench – after only 101 minutes of pre-season action, Bale responded.
An astute lofted pass early on picked out ex-Spurs team-mate Modric. Even better came when punishing speed, swift feet and measured distribution teed up Benzema’s opener.
Fellow Briton David Beckham went from pariah to Madrid’s title-winning inspiration during 2006/07. Could Bale have begun a similar path to redemption?
4 - Iker Losada became the fourth LaLiga player born in the 21st century to score a goal (alongside Ander Barrenetxea, Bryan Gil & Sergio Camello). Generation.— OptaJose (@OptaJose) August 17, 2019
A small word for Madrid’s hosts – worry.
Fran Escriba’s men were second best to visitors in flux, whether numerically advantaged or not.
Their dependency on Spain forward Iago Aspas has also only increased with the summer sale of Uruguay centre forward Maxi Gomez to Valencia. The first half featured one off-target attempt, while at the other end 10-man Madrid fired in 17 attempts from only 43 per cent of possession.
To effectively lose 2-1 when a man up will unsettle the powers that be at Balaidos.
Aspas summoned miracles in 2018/19 to confound injury and circumstance in his beloved side’s great escape. Calls for help have, seemingly, gone unheeded.
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