Karim Benzema’s sublime second-half header earned a redemptive 1-0 win for Real Madrid at in-form Sevilla and sent them second in La Liga.
A searching inquest had been ongoing into head coach Zinedine Zidane’s mixed return after new depths were plunged in Wednesday’s spineless 3-0 midweek Champions League opener at depleted Paris Saint-Germain. Los Blancos required a retort at former boss Julen Lopetegui’s unbeaten hosts – and the grateful France icon received one.
Sunday night’s gritty display gained requisite reward in the 64th minute when France centre-back Raphael Varane won the ball high up the pitch, then Wales forward Gareth Bale and Spain right-back Dani Carvajal played a one-two. This allowed Carvajal space to pick out a perfect cross that Benzema dispatched back across goal, in the process going joint top of the La Liga scoring charts with Villarreal’s Gerard.
Sevilla tried to force a response, but the summer sales of France striker Wissam Ben Yedder and Spain midfielder Pablo Sarabia bit in a toothless performance. Their toils up top helped Madrid take full advantage of Barcelona’s 2-0 loss at Granada and Atletico Madrid’s home goalless draw with unfancied Celta Vigo.
Here are the talking points from Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium:
REDEMPTION FOR REAL
The signs were ominous for Madrid.
In truth, they needn’t have worried thanks to the best performance of Zidane’s comeback.
The 47-year-old had headed straight to Seville from the French capital after a humbling inflicted by former player Angel Di Maria and in which they’d failed to record a single shot on target for the first time since Opta records began in 2003/04. Further difficulties faced them upon their return to Spain.
Madrid had last won at Sevilla in 2015, lost on 11 of their last 18 La Liga visits to the Sanchez-Pizjuan and conceded in each of their last 17 league matches there.
They also faced an inspired Lopetegui. He was dismissed after just 138 troubled days in charge at Santiago Bernabeu in October 2018, his reign beginning to unravel with a bruising 3-0 loss in the same fixture on September 26.
Added to this was the complete absence of clean sheets, injuries to the likes of Ballon d’Or holder Luka Modric and Spain playmaker Isco plus growing rumours about Jose Mourinho pulling off a managerial comeback of his own.
Even last weekend’s 3-2 victory against Levante contained a superb first hour and strained final half-hour.
A command was exerted from the off at a tinderbox Sanchez-Pizjuan rarely witnessed domestically since 2016/17’s previous title win. Added bite in midfield was symbolised when recalibrated Colombia playmaker James Rodriguez aggressively pressed Fernando in the first half, sparking a move that ultimately led to €100 million winger Hazard from shooting at Czech Republic goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik.
Patience then prevailed. Varane this time won possession and seconds later Benzema had produced a ninth headed goal in 2019 – more than any other player in Europe’s top-five leagues.
The challenge now for Zidane is re-establishing such dominance as the new norm, rather than welcome oddity.
Problems continue to multiply for Ernesto Valverde at Barca. His El Clasico rival has attained some respite, for a few days at least.
LOPETEGUI STRIKES OUT
Lopetegui, understandably, played down talk of instant revenge pre-match.
Never mind the rigour of this week’s 9,000-kilometre round trip in the Europa League to Azerbaijan’s Qarabag, any internal aspirations to a counterstrike were, truly, hamstrung from the off by a loose attack.
The most-telling statistic from the match was Sevilla’s critical inability to hit the target from nine attempts. Goalless Netherlands striker Luuk de Jong’s limitations were glaring in a second half from which two headers from promising positions went wide. Benzema exhibited no such uncertainty.
Sales of Ben Yedder and Sarabia robbed Lopetegui of 30 La Liga goals from 2018/19. A scan of the 2019/20 standings’ top half shows fifth-placed Sevilla as the joint-second lowest scorers on five goals from six fixtures.
Unless a solution is soon found, and replacement Javier Hernandez had a goal ruled out for offside, expect further points to drain away.
HAZARD’S PICKING UP PACE
There is still no goal for the livewire wide man, yet this was a performance laced with promise.
The thigh injury that brought a premature end to pre-season had denied Hazard of full match fitness, plus invaluable time getting used to Madrid’s mechanism after seven, consummate, years at Chelsea.
These facets were particularly absent during the concussive PSG loss. Hazard registered for Madrid at Sevilla the fifth-most touches (59) and fifth-best pass accuracy (85.3 per cent), joint-most dribbles (two), most fouls (four) and joint-second-most interceptions (two).
Rustiness was apparent when he could not beat Vaclik. He will, surely, not be so forgiving next time he is played clean through – starting with Wednesday’s hosting of 10th-placed Osasuna.
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