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.
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