Real Madrid produced a Jekyll and Hyde performance but eventually came out 4-2 winners in the battle for top spot with high-flyers Granada at the Bernabeu.
Los Blancos were sensational for the first hour of the game as Karim Benzema diverted a delightful cross from Gareth Bale to open the scoring in just the second minute.
The hosts doubled their advantage late in the first half as Eden Hazard chipped in for his first goal since a €100 million summer switch from Chelsea.
He then turned provided on the hour, squaring for Luka Modric who scorched a third into the top corner.
But goalkeeper Alphonse Areola – making his first league start for the club with Thibaut Courtois still ill – committed a huge error, dallying in possession and then taking out Alvaro Vadillo with his attempted clearance to allow Darwin Machis to score from the penalty spot.
There were more nerves when Domingos Duarte slotted home in the 78th minute, but substitute James Rodriguez ensured victory by finishing a sweeping counter-attack late on.
THREE IS NOT THE MAGIC NUMBER
Zinedine Zidane’s side are four points clear at the top of La Liga with rivals Barcelona and Atletico Madrid not in action until Sunday.
But we saw the best and worst of them on Saturday with some of their football worthy of status as Barcelona’s biggest threat, alongside more examples of why Zidane has been under pressure this season.
For the second time in 2019/20, Real squandered a 3-0 advantage at home having also let Levante sneak back into proceedings last month before squeaking out a 3-2 win.
It was a case of deja vu against Granada with their intensity dropping following Modric’s thunderous strike in the 61st minute.
Granted, there’s the mitigating factor of Areola’s howler as that penalty swung the pendulum of momentum in the visitor’s favour.
However, Real worryingly lost their grip and chaos ensued. Ultimately, no price was paid in terms of points, but sitting back and admiring what’s come before when there’s plenty of time on the clock is a dangerous mentality.
To be fair, there was much to admire, though. In the first-half Madrid were super slick, moving the ball across the pitch with minimal touches and maximum effect.
They pressed incessantly across the pitch, carved open a compact defence and it is at this point we appreciate one man in particular…
THE MIDFIELD PRESSURE VALVE
Zidane: “Fede Valverde is a modern player; no one has the technique has has in the whole world. When he moves forward it’s impressive. I am happy for him and he deserves the playing time he’s getting.” pic.twitter.com/qQ4Wt8gyGM— SB (@Realmadridplace) October 5, 2019
The topic of Real’s midfield is a sensitive one. It was naively neglected during the summer renovations despite two of the fitted trio declining dramatically over the last year.
Age has siphoned energy from Modric’s legs while Toni Kroos has lacked his trademark precision when Real were repeatedly overrun in the middle, a result of the Croatian’s physical degradation.
The problem hasn’t gone away this season, however, a fix has emerged from within. Federico Valverde was outstanding yet again on Saturday with the 21-year-old growing in stature both physically and mentally.
He’s quickly joining Casemiro as an undroppable for Zidane after backing up an impressive showing against Atletico Madrid with a luminous display on Saturday.
Valverde entered beast mode.
In the first-half he was a counter-punch weapon for Real, dominating midfield with smothering pressure and well-timed interceptions high up the pitch.
But not only did he plug holes, he opened them up as well.
The Uruguayan’s penetrative passing was particularly eye-catching as he threaded two gorgeous through-balls, one which almost connected with Benzema and another with Hazard.
A microcosm of what he offers in terms of technique and physicality was displayed in Real’s second goal.
He drove through midfield, showed aggression and determination to maintain possession, plus some touches of class before delicately lifting the ball into Hazard’s path for the Belgian to run through and score.
Valverde was again pivotal in the third goal, robbing the ball on the left and motoring deep into Granada territory before laying off to Hazard to assist Modric.
He’s a complete package and one delivered right on time to a very relieved Zidane. Real Madrid may have their heir to Modric, and he could well keep him out of the team going forward.
A CHIP AS CHEEKY AS THE SMILE
The signature smirk returned. Hazard needed this performance and he will hope his contribution to two goals will provide the foundation with which to build on.
Make no mistake, the Belgian has struggled and time waits for no Galactico as he will be acutely aware.
He was still lethargic for much of the first-half on Saturday, slowing down play on the ball and very much on the periphery.
But his first goal for the club was sublime, a classic Hazard finish as he delicately lifted the ball over Rui Silva.
The goal and then assist for Modric is just the injection of confidence Hazard needed and it’s paramount he now levels up from here.
Zinedine Zidane was incensed by the line of questioning he had to deal with over Gareth Bale.
The Real Madrid boss faced the media on Friday, three days after a shock 2-2 home draw with Club Brugge in the Champions League.
The coach appeared frustrated by questions concerning Bale’s late appearance for the fixture.
Bale was five minutes late to the game against Brugge where he was not on the list of chosen players.
“This is our inside, this will stay on the inside. You’ve had access to information you shouldn’t access. But well, it doesn’t matter,” Zidane said.
Bale and James Rodriguez were both left out of the draw, with Zidane saying they were injured, the pair did however train on Friday.
On Saturday the La Liga leaders meet second placed Granada at home but they are unlikely to have Thibaut Courtois in the side after the goalkeeper was withdrawn from the Brugge draw at half-time.
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.