Timeless striker Karim Benzema was at the centre of things for 10-man Real Madrid as they defeated second-bottom Espanyol to go, temporarily at least, top of La Liga.
Coach Zinedine Zidane’s recent rotations continued at Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday, with Isco and Luka Modric among those dropping to the substitutes’ bench after last weekend’s 2-1 win at Alaves. Those selected, predictably, dominated from the off and the unlikely source of France centre-back Raphael Varane opened the scoring with a striker’s finish on 37 minutes into the bottom corner.
Brazil teenager Vinicius Junior kept seeing chances go to waste before Benzema – who’d assisted his countryman for the opener – then settled any nerves on 79 minutes. Uruguay centre midfielder Fede Valverde burst into the area and artfully centred for the 31-year-old to stroke home a 11th top-flight goal of a productive campaign.
Here are the talking points:
MADRID WON’T GO AWAY, ESPANYOL KEEP DROPPING
This wasn’t pretty from Los Blancos – it rarely has been this term.
Zidane, however, should care little as he settles back with his charges in first place. From being, reportedly, on the verge of the sack in September, Madrid are now refusing to go away in December thanks to this fourth La Liga win in a row.
That they eased to 61-per-cent possession and registered three times the visitors’ total attempts (18/6) gains extra credit when squad rotation and injuries are factored in. Marcelo, Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale were chief among those to miss out on a day when Espanyol either could not, or were not allowed to, display even a negligible threat.
The only regret will be an inability to bolster an inferior goal difference to El Clasico rivals Barcelona. Vinicius Junior toiled in this regard, yet none of his joint-high four efforts could find a way past an inspired Diego Lopez.
Varane’s deft finish from the kind of tight angle Vinicius spurned in the first half does not look great, upon review.
Saturday’s opponents Espanyol’s dismal fortunes have been far more static. Not even early October’s emergency call to ex-Sevilla tactician Pablo Machin has cured their parlous situation.
There was no repeat of last weekend’s comedy of errors to lose 4-2 to 10-man Osasuna. Yet a diminished Madrid had no issue earning a 103rd La Liga win against them, the most of any team against a single opponent in the competition’s history.
A disparity in ability is obvious. The lack of fight, however, cannot be repeated next Sunday versus Real Betis.
WHY FEDE’S FIRST IN LINE
Illumination into the cause of Madrid’s upturn was provided with the second goal.
Uruguay centre midfielder Valverde’s drive took him deep into the Espanyol penalty box. His intrinsic technique then led to a pirouette and perfect centre for the wily Benzema to place low past ex-Madrid team-mate Lopez.
Incumbent superstars Toni Kroos and Luka Modric could have done the second bit. They definitely could not, however, have produced the essential burst that created the chance.
The globe’s biggest club are a team transformed since Valverde stepped into the starting side for September 25’s 2-0 defeat of Osasuna. Since the goalless draw that followed at Atletico Madrid, Los Blancos have struck 18 times in his five starts.
Little wonder it is now Valverde + one of Modric or Kroos. That is some accolade for a 21-year-old who endured miserable relegation on loan at Deportivo La Coruna in 2017/18.
WHERE’S WU GONE?
Build-up to Saturday’s clash featured the quirk that the first citizen of the world’s most populous nation, China, was set to compete at the world’s premier team.
Wu Lei, however, did not race into the history books. In his 64 minutes on the sacred Bernabeu turf, he produced; no attempts, one key pass, had 24 touches, made one dribble and one inaccurate cross.
The forward provided a necessary gust of wind into Espanyol’s flagging sails immediately upon arrival from Shanghai SIPG last January. He’s gone from three goals and one assist in 12 starts in 2018/19, to just a solitary goal in 10 starts in 2019/20.
Both Wu and Espanyol will wonder what has gone wrong.
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