Copa Del Rey action has returned and it is the one trophy Zidane has yet to acquire as both a player and a manager. The draw brought together segunda division B minnows, Fuenlabrada (from the outskirts of Madrid), against the reigning European and La Liga champions, Real Madrid. Despite the arguments against the platform, the Copa Del Rey remains a two-legged affair. This meant Zidane could roll out the kids and still have the opportunity to make amends if anything went wrong in the return fixture at the Bernabeau. Zidane left thirteen players home including the likes of Ronaldo, Ramos, Isco, and Marcelo. He brought in four academy youngsters, of whom Franchu and Tejero made appearances. Zidane set his men up in a 4-4-2 with Tejero occupying the left back position and Theo pushed further forward as the left midfielder. It is easy to forget just how young some of these players are: Achraf (18), Theo (20), Vallejo (20), Ceballos (21), Borja Mayoral (20), Asensio (21)–the average age of the side Zidane put out was just 22.5 year old. If you disregard Casilla and count outfield players alone, that number goes down to a resounding 21.6 years old! The young talent available to the Frenchman is insane and he was now able to give them all their opportunity to play together and show their worth.
Lackluster first half
Fuenlabrada started the match brightly, their adrenaline pumping and energy levels high. The young Madrid side looked like they wanted to press high up the pitch early on, but the press was disjointed and often-late, meaning Fuenlabrada could easily find their way out. After a slow opening five minutes, Madrid got on the ball and began to take hold of possession. The possession had no impact; the team struggled to find any rhythm and there were countless misplaced passes and sloppy touches to give away possession. All credit to Antonio Calderon, Fuenlabrada’s manager, who had his team set up well defensively, putting all ten men behind the ball in and each knowing their role defensively. Madrid could not find any answers. Ceballos was one of the few players making inroads as his dribbling could break down the lines, but he needed to see more of the ball.
While Ceballos was a bright spot, Achraf struggled. He did not have a good game. He continually took the defense out of shape and then neglected to track his man on a couple of occasions. Combine that with his offensive output in the first half and he was proving to be more of a liability than an asset. Like the rest of the squad he would later improve in the second half.
It took twenty-five minutes before Madrid finally started to impose themselves and better ball movement started to appear. Llorente and Ceballos began dictating the flow of the game. Marcos was a monster—tracking runs, controlling the game, making interceptions. It was his best performance in a Madrid shirt to date. A lot of the attacking sparks like Theo, Mayoral, and Asensio were kept quiet. Asensio began dropping very deep from his second striker position to just get some touches on the ball and have some sort of influence. Despite the efforts, it was a very bland first half. There was no real attacking threat. Jordi Codina, Fuenlabrada’s goalkeeper, was barely tested. The edge you expected to see from these hungry youngsters simply was not there. Vallejo, Ceballos, and Llorente had been the only bright spots. The young Spanish center back, Vallejo, looked calm and composed. His passes are crisp and firm and even at 20 years old looked to be martialing the backline alongside captain Nacho.
It was not until the 43rd minute for Madrid to register a guilt-edge opportunity. It would come from an unlikely source, Marcos Llorente. The golden boy ripped a volley from outside the eighteen-yard box only for the ball to rattle off the crossbar. He was agonizingly close to opening his Madrid account.
Madrid ups the ante in second half
There were no changes at halftime for the Whites, but Zidane likely gave some instructions to his young players. Theo was much more involved in the second half. The team overall was doing more to break Fuenlabrada down. There was more movement and quicker passes. Yet still, that final product and that extra bit of bite was lacking. Oftentimes it would be crosses into bodies and swinging the ball back and forth with little urgency and no penetration. For an hour of the game, Borja Mayoral was devoid of service and barley had a sniff of goal, let alone his lack of touches.
Breakthrough is made and the chances come
The breakthrough would eventually come, all be it with a little help from the referee. Achraf Hakimi drove into the box with an attacking run down the right flank and earned a penalty kick. There was some controversy as to where the fall took place, inside or outside the box. Replays showed that it might very well have been outside the box. Never the less, the call was made and Marco Asensio stepped up to the spot. The former Mallorca man dispatched the penalty into the bottom corner and gave Madrid a one goal lead. Asensio came more into the match after his goal. He led a frightening counter attack which saw a quick one-two between himself and Lucas Vazquez and ultimately a blistering shot from that left foot of his which Codina could only parry.
Mayoral would then get his first good look at goal 66 minutes into the game. Dani Ceballos threaded a perfect through ball, slicing open the Fuenlabrada defense. Borja used his body tremendously well to hold off the defender and get a shot off. He was unlucky not to get more from that opportunity, but minutes later he would get another chance. After some beautiful build up from the young Madridistas, the ball found its way to Achraf on the right flank who whipped in a first time cross which Mayoral latched on to with a strong snapping header. The header looked destined for the back of the net, but Codina made a big save.
Not one, but two penalty calls for Madrid!
Madrid were growing in the second half and a second goal did look on the cards. After earning what looked like a straightforward corner kick, Theo was found on the ground and the referee pointed to the spot. Replays showed that Theo was bear hugged to the ground, and this time, Madrid rightly earned another penalty. Lucas Vazquez took to the spot and opened his account for the season. It was an ice-cold penalty. Jordi Codina guessed the right way and there wasn’t much power behind the kick, but Lucas guided it to the bottom corner. With a two goal away lead, the team began to coast and moved the ball around with ease as Fuenlabrada struggled to shift away from their defensive structure.
Vallejo debut turns sour
Jesus Vallejo looked assured in possession and composed at the back all evening. His ball playing attributes were on full display. He helped the team keep a clean sheet and the rare moments he was tested defensively, he passed with flying colors. But the debut turned sour. After 88 minutes of gameplay, Vallejo received a straight red card for an unnecessary challenge. He had a heavy first touch and his second touch then turned into a tackle. From the referee’s vantage point, it looked like his studs were up and he took a chunk out of Milla’s leg. Replays showed that the challenge was not as harsh as the ref interpreted, a yellow would have sufficed, but nonetheless Vallejo was gone. It is unfortunate for the debutante, as he will now miss the return match.
A historic match for Fuenlabrada and exciting day for those living on the outskirts of Madrid, but certainly not a match to write home about for Real Madrid fans. The few bright spots are what Madrid should take out of this match. Ceballos continues to grow in a Madrid shirt and displayed some individual brilliance on the night and as always worked tirelessly for the cause. Marcos Llorente had his best match in a Madrid shirt to date—he dictated the flow of the game with his passing, made crucial interceptions, tracked his men, and led the midfield line. Both Ceballos and Llorente’s roles should continue to grow and evolve as the season progresses. The other bright spot, despite the red card, was Jesus Vallejo. The Spaniard is cool and composed when in possession and fizzes his firm passes in directly to his targets. The game won’t live long in the memory, but it was a good opportunity to rest players while giving some youngsters their opportunity to lead the team. Zidane will be pleased with the result and can now focus on Girona for the weekend.