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.
Maligned Wales forward 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.
The object of head coach Zinedine Zidane’s ire benefited from Eden Hazard’s pre-match injury to surprisingly start at probable relegation candidates. His expert dribbling teed up striker Karim Benzema’s predatory 12th-minute opener.
The video-assistant referee would then rule out a Celta equaliser and send off visiting Croatia midfielder Luka Modric either side of half-time. But Toni Kroos’ rocket and substitute Lucas Vazquez’s well-worked one-on-one made the game safe, a day after champions Barcelona’s 1-0 loss at Athletic Bilbao.
A fantastic solo effort from 18-year-old Iker Losada in injury time, which found the bottom corner, then came far too late for Celta.
Here are the Madrid player ratings:
REAL MADRID (4-3-3)
Thibaut Courtois 6: Madrid’s undisputed No1 did not have a great deal to do, even with 10 men. Faced no on-target attempts in first half, though lively to snub out early second-half threat from Iago Aspas.
Alvaro Odriozola 4: Luckiest man at Balaidos. Constant uncertainty reached peak when he was robbed twice by Suarez in one move, only for VAR to deny Mendez’s tap-in. Also panicked and felled Aspas before Brais Mendez strike – would have been a penalty kick.
Raphael Varane 6: France centre-back added certainty to a backline that creaked in pre-season.
Sergio Ramos 6: Kept busy, at times, by Aspas and Mendez. Had more than enough to see Los Blancos through.
Marcelo 7: A probable beneficiary of summer buy Ferland Mendy’s injury. Busy, as ever, and bombed on during Vazquez’s goal.
Luka Modric 5: Pushed up high in 4-1-4-1 formation that Madrid utilised for long stretches. Led way in Zidane’s press, only for clumsy challenge on Denis Suarez to earn dismissal via VAR.
Casemiro 8: To the chagrin of the home faithful, Casemiro put in disciplined display. Produced critical turnover for Benzema’s opener and blocked Mendez’s goal-bound 50th-minute effort.
Toni Kroos 7: Produced knockout blow with Madrid on the ropes in aftermath of Modric’s red card. Power generated from 30 yards was astounding.
Gareth Bale 7: What a message from Madrid’s forgotten/maligned Wales forward. Double check-back gave Celta defender David Costas twisted blood, prior to expertly picking out Benzema with sublime low cross.
Karim Benzema 7: The burst of old has withered away. What remains is the mind of a predator. Inches away from second within moments of restart. Played critical part in silky third.
Vinicius Junior 6: The 19-year-old showed increasing maturity with diagonal runs and snide shirt pull on breaking Suarez.
Lucas Vazquez 7: Unlucky not to start. Lashed in the third soon after coming on.
Isco 7: Spain playmaker produced ballerina’s turn during eye-catching third.
Luka Jovic N/A: First summer signing to feature. Serbia forward had little time to shine.
The bulk of Real Madrid’s current squad won the Champions League three times in a row, but every team needs a tune-up now and again. Everything’s usually bigger with Los Blancos, of course, and their repairs have run up a bill of more than €300 million.
Is even that enough to make them European greats once again? Or chisel away at a mammoth gap between themselves and Barcelona in La Liga? We’ve decided to scrutinise their 2019/20 squad, one by one, with star ratings ahead of their La Liga opener at Celta Vigo on Saturday.
Keylor Navas – He doesn’t have the name but he certainly has the stars in our book. Not only a superb shot-stopper but so composed where the more feted recent goalkeeping recruit is not. Into his sixth season at Real Madrid and has resisted being pushed out. Bravo. ****1/2
Thibaut Courtois – The man with the Golden Glove has been anything but a precious commodity since leaving Russia last season. The former Chelsea stopper made several high-profile blunders in 2018/19 and it’s only continued into the pre-season. There’s a great keeper in there somewhere, though. ***1/2 (Potential ****1/2)
Sergio Ramos – This is a big season for Ramos. Eder Militao’s purchase for €50m will surely have lit a fire under the Spain captain, who will turn 34 next March. A leader, a goal-scorer, a natural passer and still a fine defender – they aren’t common traits in centre-backs. Will he spearhead Real’s rejuvenation? *****
Dani Carvajal – At his best, Carvajal is one of the most versatile full-backs in world football. At his worst – and we saw a fair bit of that in 2018/19 – he can lose his head in an already incendiary Real back-line. Alvaro Odriozola hasn’t really put the pressure on and he could really do with some. ****1/2
Marcelo – The Brazilian will never hold tutorials on the art of defending, that much is true. He has however been one of Madrid’s standout performers in an otherwise worrisome pre-season, chipping in with a goal and two assists. As long as he’s pointing north there’s not much problem. Will the rest of the defence cover for him this year? ****1/2
Raphael Varane – Does Varane’s reputation outstrip his ability? It’s a legitimate question given that he failed to step up where Ramos floundered last year. There’s the feeling that he is a mere complementary piece rather than a cornerstone of a team, be it for Real or France. He’s still only 26 but he’ll also be feeling the pressure from Militao. **** (Potential ****1/2)
Eder Militao – Teams don’t spend €50m for mere bench-warmers, even if it’s moneybags Madrid doing the cash splashing. It took just one season at Porto to convince real to part with that figure, as the boy from Sao Paulo flashed the same combo of silk and steel that made compatriot Thiago Silva one of the best in the world. An intriguing battle awaits at centre-back. ***1/2 (Potential ****1/2)
Ferland Mendy – Militao can target two of those centre-backs. The €48m Mendy, however, has both eyes on Marcelo’s spot on the left flank. Another interesting dynamic is that Mendy is 24, so he’s hardly of an age to want to sit and wait on the bench. Many of Lyon’s attacks went through Mendy last season and there’s nothing stopping him taking on the same role at Madrid. Game on. *** (Potential ****1/2)
Alvaro Odriozola – It was a bizarre first campaign for the former Real Sociedad man in the Spanish capital before a clavicle fracture ended his season. A player of awesome attacking potential – he can also play as a winger – it was feast or famine in 2018/19 as he either played instead of Carvajal, or was watching from the stands. His second season has to be better. *** (Potential ****)
Nacho – The ultimate team man and the epitome of solid. The 29-year-old could probably have found his fortune elsewhere at various points during his career, but is happy to be used as a spare part right across the Madrid back-line. Indeed he’s not yet reached 200 appearances in a 10-year career. ***
Toni Kroos – The Kroos/Casemiro/Modric triumvirate became bent out of shape last season and it was certainly true that the German metronome’s radar was off. A common criticism is a tendency to slow play down while others will call it measured. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder and in Real’s case, they had no problem tying down their elegant passer to a new long-term deal in May. ****1/2
Luka Modric – Lost in the derision over the most controversial Ballon d’Or winner of all time was the fact that Modric remains an excellent player. Sadly, he didn’t do himself justice with a pedestrian 2018/19 (a rather common theme …) Not only the physical strain in those 33-year-old legs, it may also have been the mental drain of losing a World Cup final. If he’s used wisely, expect him to return to somewhere near his best. ****1/2
Isco – There’s no denying that Isco is a wonderful player. There’s also no denying it is becoming increasingly hard to envisage him ever nailing down a consistent position for Madrid. It helps that Zinedine Zidane is a big admirer, yet even he would hesitate building a team around an attacker who ceaselessly roams – often to the detriment of the whole team. Can he redeem himself? ****1/2
Casemiro – The nuts-and-bolts man to what is often a flimsy side. The Brazilian is not without his flaws and certainly has his limitations on the ball, but there are currently no other members of the Madrid dressing room that can anchor a midfield with the same diligence and feistiness. ****
James Rodriguez – Has never found his feet at Real Madrid, never truly fit in at Bayern Munich and his best position is the lesser-spotted No.10. If Los Blancos need to balance the books, the Colombian is an obvious casualty and it’s difficult to imagine him still situated at the Bernabeu come September. ***1/2
Fede Valverde – Real have cleared their books of city-hopper Marcos Llorente, Arsenal loanee Dani Ceballos and Chelsea’s own Mateo Kovavic, which has suddenly made Valverde a rather important member of the midfield. A holding player who can spot a pass, the 21-year-old cannot simply be called Casemiro’s back-up from now on. ***1/2 (Potential: ****)
Takefusa Kubo – The ‘Japanese Messi’ could well be shipped out on loan but, boy has been electric in white so far. In the glimpses we’ve seen, Kubo has the dexterity, burst and poise that is – faintly – reminiscent of you-know-who. He just needs to add about 600 goals over the next decade … but taking tongue out of cheeks, the 18-year-old can set tongues wagging. *** (Potential: *****)
For Chelsea, the trophy celebrations were tinged with sadness...— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) August 14, 2019
After the final-whistle, it became apparent that Eden Hazard would be moving on 👀
A match-winning performance and a gold medal around his neck was the perfect way to sign off 🏅pic.twitter.com/fqNNeIhCxP
Lucas Vazquez – Much like Nacho in that the Spaniard has probably hit his ceiling, but his floor is rather high up from the ground level. The 28-year-old is a tenacious, tactically astute and trustworthy right winger who is likely to start the season as Zidane’s first choice on that side. Don’t expect to be swept off your feet, though. ***1/2
Rodrygo – Interestingly enough, Zidane has tried out his newest 18-year-old Brazilian in attacking midfield during pre-season. He has certainly given Real some thrust, the highlight being a sensational free-kick against Bayern Munich. Will likely stay in Castilla this season alongside Kubo. *** (Potential: ****1/2)
Brahim Diaz – Diaz left Manchester City to seek out first-team football … only to find himself trying out a different bench. The 20-year-old has a chance to plant his flag, though, given Asensio’s ailment and if sturdiness in defence is married to his natural style in attack, he has a future on the right. *** (Potential: ****)
Mariano – The odd one out on an ever-lengthening list of attackers at the Bernabeu. His homecoming, to put it bluntly, was horrendous last season as he managed just three starts in the league all season. A fine striker who evidently is not up to scratch in the build-up, he is best off seeking pastures new. **