Like Willie Nelson before them, Pepe Mel's Betis side came to play and not just for the ride. They buzzed around Diego Lopez in the opening minutes, forcing him to make tough saves as they demonstrated their intent right from the outset. After a nearly flawless preseason it was disheartening to see Betis' pressure cause such blatant confusion amongst Real's backline, particularly between Pepe and Lopez.
Even without last season's leading scorer Ruben Castro, Betis were very positive in their approach, carrying the first quarter of the match with Jorge Molina and Cedric Mabwati providing a serious, constant threat going forward. Betis seemed to initially focus their pressure down the right flank, giving Dani Carvajal a rude welcome home from the Bundesliga.
In fact, the entire first half of the match hinged on which side could successfully exploit the right side of the pitch, as Betis focused on limiting Cristiano Ronaldo's space down the left, forcing Madrid to concentrate their attacks on the right side of the pitch. These attacks were often started by Carvajal as he went forward, leaving space in behind that Betis were then keen to exploit on the counterattack.
Eventually the ultra-pacey Cedric burst down the middle of the field, streaking by Sergio Ramos as if he were invisible before sending a delicate pass into the box for Molina to barely tap home. Funny thing that--because one of the things I left on the cutting room floor when writing the Betis scouting report was the fact that, according to Opta, Jorge Molina has scored more goals against Real Madrid than any other side in the Primera, including goals in both of his last two trips to the Bernabeu.
Molina's goal illustrated the troubling lack of cohesion of Real's backline as Ramos failed to close down Cedric and Carvajal was far too slow in marking Molina in front of goal. This lack of synchronicity is something that Ancelotti and the technical staff will hopefully analyze closely as they go forward. Pepe was also adrift and out of position.
Mesut Ozil started to become involved in the match, as did Marcelo and Isco. Marcelo's service throughout was superlative and the Brazilian international created numerous clear-cut chances for a listless Karim Benzema in the first twenty minutes. After one particularly glaring miss, Benzema atoned by ruthlessly equalising with a beautiful sharp angled finish in the 26th minute. Instrumental Isco expertly orchestrated Benzema's strike with a deftly weighted pass after some thrilling interplay with Marcelo.
The first half ended with Betis outshooting Real by a 2-1 margin, but it took less than 20 seconds after the restart for CR7 to send a blistering shot careening off the woodwork. Isco and Marcelo continued to create sparks, instigating virtually all of Madrid's promising offensive forays.
Sami Khedira picked up a knock and was withdrawn for Casemiro in the 55th minute. Unlike Carvajal, Casemiro was able to continue displaying his promising preseason form, establishing a solid defensive base while also spraying some lovely balls forward into attack. Angel Di Maria replaced Ozil, who faded somewhat after a bright start, and immediately started to influence the match with his pace and pinpoint crosses. Despite scoring, Benzema's performance posed more questions than answers and he was substituted for Alvaro Morata in the 81st minute.
The tides of this truly fascinating match ebbed and flowed before Marcelo lofted a sublime, inch-perfect ball into the box for Isco to blast home. It was a fitting payoff for two men who were far and away Madrid's best players on the night. Carlo Ancelotti tried to maintain a poker face after the winning goal but a little bit of sweat on his upper lip could be glimpsed through the collected camera lenses of the universe.
All credit must be given to Real Betis and judging by this performance they should be in contention for European places again, for sure. The pure quality of Real Madrid triumphed in the end. But amidst the positive glow of Isco's brilliance and the three points it wrought--a few questions and adjustments must be pondered before next Monday's match against Granada.