Madrid did not play well against an Espanyol side pointless and goalless in their last seven visits to the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, who are now bottom of La Liga after one point from their last six games.
But a stadium which showed up every week keen to whistle underperforming players is now firmly behind Zidane’s team, as they head into potentially crucial games at Valencia and Barcelona in the run-up to Christmas.
As can often happen in lunchtime games at the Bernabeu, the play was very sluggish from both teams through the first half – with Espanyol looking beaten even before the game started, and Zidane having made six changes to his starting XI due to recurring fitness issues.
The alterations included Brazilian teenagers Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo Goes starting either side of Karim Benzema in Madrid’s attack – and neither was really able to take the chance to impress even as the visiting defence did their best to help.
It was no surprise that Madrid’s most decisive player these days Benzema was involved in the opening goal. The exiled-Frenchman showed characteristic poise to set-up fellow countryman Raphael Varane for a composed low finish past Espanyol keeper Diego Lopez.
Into the second half Madrid’s concentration appeared to wander even further, as the visitors continued to offer very little. The 1pm Spanish time kick-off was designed by La Liga president Javier Tebas to allow maximum exposure as Espanyol forward Wu Lei became the first Chinese player to grace the Bernabeu turf, but the [alleged] watching millions back home might have been underwhelmed before he was first player withdrawn.
Those present at the stadium were growing just a bit nervous as even Benzema started to misplace simple passes. But there was still a noticeable lack of anger when Vinicius once more backed marker David Lopez into the penalty area, only to lose his footing at a very unfortunate moment. Such slips were pounced on through the season’s opening months as chances to vent frustration at the team’s general poor showing.. By contrast on Saturday there was supportive applause for a kid going through a difficult second season.
The points were wrapped up late on, mostly thanks to Madrid’s emerging star Fede Valverde, who showed more enthusiasm and energy through the 90 minutes than all three of Espanyol’s starting midfielders. The Uruguayan burst into the box and crossed for Benzema to force the ball home. He now has 11 goals and seven assists in 10 games at the Bernabeu this season.
The 2-0 final score confirmed Madrid as statistically La Liga’s most in-form team, having taken 16 points from the last 18 available, scoring 16 times and conceding just two.
“We found it tough going at times, but in the end we kept calm, kept playing and kept our heads,” Zidane said afterwards. “We’re happy as we kept our run going, although of course we can play better. There’s still a long way to go, and we’ve not forgotten where we are coming from.”
Where Madrid are coming from is a horror show 2018/19, a very questionable summer transfer window, and a really concerning start to the current campaign. Back in September it seemed like an inability to shake up an underperforming and aging squad had condemned Madrid to another season of stagnation.
Sources at the Bernabeu at the time worried that Zidane had realised he could not repeat the successes of his first spell as coach and might even quit again. Club president Florentino Perez was among those thought to be happily considering bringing back Jose Mourinho, who was only then shamelessly putting himself forward for the job.
Through all this Zidane mostly kept his cool. He was big enough to swallow his not inconsiderable pride on being out maneuvered by Perez over transfer plans involving Gareth Bale and Paul Pogba in summer. And he kept his faith in his methods amid renewed criticism from fans and especially pundits around the Bernabeu, some of him never quite rated him as a coach even as he won three Champions Leagues in two and a half seasons.
It could be argued that Zidane did land in a fortunate position the first time around, stepping in for a floundering Rafa Benitez and inheriting a team led by Sergio Ramos and Luka Modric just coming into their best years, and with Cristiano Ronaldo in peak Ballon D’Or winning shape.
On his return, things have been much more complicated. So Zidane deserves a lot of credit for keeping the dressingroom onside as he has made some tough personnel decisions. Not immediately obvious choices such as retaining Valverde over Dani Ceballos last summer, and promoting 18 year old Rodrygo ahead of more experienced options in attack, have spectacularly come off.
The former galactico has also shown impressive tactical flexibility through recent weeks – especially when he surprised everyone by bringing Isco back from the cold for the Andalusian to play his best game in years in the 2-2 UCL draw against Paris Saint Germain at the Bernabeu. Despite PSG’s late two goals that night, Madrid’s performance suggested they were ready again to challenge the best around.
The biggest current challenge for Madrid is injuries. The greatest problem is in attack – where all of Eden Hazard, Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez are currently sidelined. Bale is the only one likely to return next Sunday at Valencia, although as ever with the Welshman the exact nature of his current muscle injury is unclear. With Madrid already sure to finish second in their Champions League group, a lot of rotation is likely for Wednesday’s dead rubber in Bruges.
Zidane also has a mounting issue at left-back. Summer arrival Ferland Mendy has had some decent moments, but was troubled even by Espanyol’s very limited attacking on Saturday, and picked up a silly second yellow card at 2-0 up late on. Usual back-up Nacho Fernandez has barely played this season due to injury. It seemed unlikely up until recently, but Los Blancos fans are hoping a revitalised Marcelo is back from his current calf problem in time to face Barcelona at the Camp Nou on December 18.
Barca kept pace with Madrid at the top of the La Liga table later on Saturday by hammering RCD Mallorca 5-2. Lionel Messi scored a record 35th career La Liga hat-trick, and Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann also scored crackers. Ernesto Valverde’s side too are moving into form after wins over Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid over the last 10 days. It is all building nicely to the big game just before Christmas. “What a Clasico we have in store,” said Marca’s cover Sunday morning.
Messi’s return to full fitness has brought Barca back to life. A bigger swing has taken place at the Bernabeu. Throughout the summer and the difficult start to this season, Zidane’s public stance remained clear. He enjoyed his job, his players are the best around, and if they all worked hard together they could get back to the top.
That message has got across to both the team and the Bernabeu, which in itself is quite an achievement and shows the quietly spoken Frenchman’s sometimes underestimated leadership qualities. Whether Madrid are really back at a level where they can challenge for the biggest trophies will now be tested over the next few weeks.