An unlikely top-two clash awaits on Saturday when Real Madrid welcome promoted Granada in La Liga.
There shouldn’t be any surprise linked to the fact that Zinedine Zidane’s return to the Santiago Bernabeu hot seat has propelled Los Blancos to the summit. But Tuesday’s unconvincing 2-2 Champions League draw with Club Brugge continued a curious campaign in which high performance has regularly proved elusive.
El Grana, in contrast, have defied all expectations to sit only one point behind the weekend’s hosts, deservedly beating Barcelona 2-0 along the way. Diego Martinez’s men have scored more goals than Madrid (13/12) and conceded less than the aforementioned champions (six/10), making them good value for second place.
Here are the talking points ahead of this enticing match-day eight clash:
LEFT TO THEIR OWN DEVICES
Madrid, literally, are in dire need of a left-field solution.
A damaging ripple effect has caused Zidane to scramble for left-back options this weekend. None are obvious at this stage – a dangerous proposition versus opponents who’ve won four of their last five fixtures.
This is now top of a lengthening list of problems that includes €100 million Belgium forward Eden Hazard’s slow start, a one-paced midfield and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois’ illness.
Summer-buy Ferland Mendy’s enduring groin problem ruled him out of the Brugge stalemate, while Marcelo’s neck injury made him fit enough to only start from the substitutes’ bench. Stand-in left-back Nacho Fernandez, however, would be withdrawn at half-time because of knee ligament damage, ensuring Marcelo would play for 45 minutes and pick up a separate hamstring strain.
Nacho is now out until 2020, Marcelo could not train in the remaining days of this week and Mendy requires further treatment. How they could now do with Sergio Reguilon, whose excellence on loan at Sevilla earned him a first call-up to the senior Spain squad for this month’s Euro 2020 qualifiers at Norway and Sweden.
Where Zidane goes from here is difficult to fathom. Especially after he declined to promote Castilla options Fran Garcia and Javi Hernandez to the seniors on Friday.
Wales forward Gareth Bale began his career at left-back and was entrusted with greater defensive responsibilities in the win at Sevilla and draw with Atletico Madrid. Dani Carvajal’s excellent start to the season could be interrupted, while a lifeline may be handed to the ignored fellow right-back Alvaro Odriozola.
A bolder solution could see a return to a three-man defence, with Brazil’s Eder Militao coming in.
Whatever contingency is chosen, Granada’s match-winner against Levante, Antonio Puertas, will relish facing them.
GRANADA’S GUNS ARE BLAZING
This is a special time for the Andalusians.
Not since the early 1970s have they looked so accomplished among Spain’s elite.
Manchester City loanee Yangel Herrera has represented a burgeoning force in midfield alongside Angel Montoro, while three-goal top scorer Puertas is blossoming during a first taste of La Liga aged 27 and skipper Victor Diaz is evergreen.
Sartorial head coach David Martinez has gained deserved plaudits for refined workmanship on a squad that is redolent of the sharp suit jackets he dons on the touchline. Steep progression from finishing second in the Segunda Division to sitting second in La Liga befits wide acclaim, especially when Granada’s six-year stay in the top flight ended as a rabble in 2016/17.
This praise reached fever pitch in last month’s downing of Barca. They ceded 74 per cent of possession on the day, yet a superior tally of nine attempts to their opposition’s eight details a lethality on the counter-attack that Madrid must be wary of.
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
A cacophony of boos rained down on the bedraggled Madrid players when they trudged off at 2-0 down in midweek.
It was hard to argue they were not warranted. Lackadaisical Los Blancos had been repeatedly wrenched open on the counter-attack by the Jupiler Pro League leaders, sloppy in possession and impotent in attack.
Nigerian forward Emmanuel Dennis’ admittedly clumsy brace was not without merit. And then came the belated cavalry charge, inspired by lively substitute Vinicius Junior and sealed through headers from stalwarts Sergio Ramos and Casemiro.
These schizophrenic qualities against Brugge are emblematic of Zidane’s first full season back at the helm.
0 - Real Madrid have failed to win their opening two games to a Champions League season for the first time ever (D1 L1). Challenge. pic.twitter.com/o7Zjmau283— OptaJose (@OptaJose) October 1, 2019
Unforgivable defensive errors in the shameful 3-0 defeat at Paris Saint-Germain disappeared in stoic performances versus Sevilla and Atleti; Levante were torn asunder for 60 minutes, before Belgium No1 Courtois’ heroics were required to claim a 3-2 triumph against Levante; La Liga’s only unbeaten side conceded five unanswered goals in their first 145 minutes of 2019/20 European action.
Madrid have won their last eight matches against Granada, scoring 28 – including April 2015’s 9-1 demolition – and conceding two. A type of consistency the 2019/20 iteration of Madrid has found so difficult to pin down.
Real Madrid recovered from a disastrous first half to scrape a point against Club Brugge at Santiago Bernabeu after initially going 2-0 down in their Champions League Group A-encounter.
Emmanuel Dennis was the beneficiary of some dire Madrid defending, opening the scoring in the ninth minute with an unconventional finish.
The Nigerian doubled the Belgian’s lead when he robbed Luka Modric of possession and raced through to score his second six minutes before half time.
Sergio Ramos narrowly escaped an offside call to drag his side back into the contest 10 minutes after the break with a fine header.
The hosts poured forward in search of another, but were forced to wait until the 85th minute for an equaliser when Casemiro headed home a Toni Kroos free-kick after Brugge skipper Ruud Vormer was dismissed for a second yellow in committing the foul.
However, the visitors clung on for a memorable point, leaving Real facing a devilish trip to Turkish giants Galatasaray without a win from their opening two games.
Here are the main talking points from the Bernabeu.
AN OFFENSIVE DEFENCE
Real Madrid’s defence hasn’t looked this bad since, well, their last Champions League game.
Los Blancos were torn apart by Paris Saint-Germain but in the aftermath of that humiliating defeat, Zinedine Zidane retreated into a conservative shell. To his credit, it worked as Real kept a clean sheet in the three games since that wretched display in Paris, a run which included visits to Sevilla and Atletico Madrid.
But the chains were off on Tuesday after sacrificing their attacking intent. To begin with, Real actually looked good, zipping the ball around with sharp one-touch passing in congested areas.
Indeed, there was a swagger about their play but it quickly disintegrated into misplaced arrogance.
For a team so short of legs in midfield, a farcically high defensive line spelled danger, especially against the speed of Dennis and the vibrant Percy Tau.
Those two mercilessly skewered the 13-time European champions, Tau breaking a lethargic offside trap to square for Dennis who comically muddled a close-range finish, diverting a right-footed shot onto his left and trickling the ball past Thibaut Courtois.
Madrid indulged further hubris and paid for it once more as Modric maddeningly pivoted straight into a Dennis on the halfway line, allowing the striker to pull clear. He almost tripped over his own feet yet somehow used the stumble to leverage the ball over a seated Courtois.
As they committed men forward after the break, Real left gaping holes at the back and could have been punished further were it not for half-time substitute goalkeeper Alphonse Areola saving well to deny Dennis a hat-trick.
Finding a balance between the extremes of enterprise and conservatism is Zidane’s top task.
VINICIUS THE DIFFERENCE
Is there a player more despised by their own ‘support’ than Lucas Vazquez? The 28-year-old’s name on the team-sheet is always greeted by a collective meltdown, but his unrefined performance justified the derision.
Between ludicrously bad flip-flap attempts and blind dribbles, Vazquez ended promising moves with imprecise passes.
When he was withdrawn for Vinicius Junior in the 67th minute, Real were far more effective with the Brazilian in his place.
For large parts of the game, on one side there was Eden Hazard so disconnected from his team-mates and on the other, Vazquez displaying a disconnection of brain and feet.
But Vinicius carved open the quickly-fatiguing visitors, entering the game in a blizzard of feints, twists and turns.
With both Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez left out of the squad, it was the teenager who proved the difference.
His trickery drew a rash foul from an already-booked Vormer as Brugge were left with 10 men and then from the resulting free-kick, no lead, as Casemiro planted his header into the far corner.
WHERE WAS BALE?
It seems trivial to discuss players not involved after such a dramatic game, but the smell of Bale pervaded the Bernabeu air and intensified as the game wore on.
The Welshman, having been such a strong performer for Zidane so far this season with three goals in his last five games, was fit but rested.
Curiously, Bale was left out of the side completely and while it was perhaps understandable he didn’t make the starting XI given his injury history, discarding him from the squad was a bizarre decision.
Bale has been one of the few players to provide genuine penetration out wide and combined with his immense work-rate is now a key member of the team.
Zidane paid for his negligence and it’s a mistake he’ll do well to avoid.
Real Madrid may be top of the table, but some stardust is clearly still missing from the side.
Los Blancos lead Granada – yes, Granada – by a point in La Liga, after playing out a 0-0 draw with city rivals Atletico on Saturday night.
Eden Hazard is yet to fire since his mega-money move from Chelsea as the spectre of Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored a ridiculous 450 goals in 438 games for Real before departing for Juventus last year, lingers over the Bernabeu.
But Zidane insists his side can return to their very best without Ronaldo among their ranks.
“I’m not going to talk about Cristiano’s history now, what he did here, we all know how important he was,” said Zidane in his pre-match press conference. “Do we need to adjust now? Yes, with our current players, we want to keep doing the same things, not to change our ways, the DNA of this club, which is at least to work up a sweat.”
Watch Zidane share his thoughts in the video above.