Eibar are a good team. They play in a beautiful part of Spain, have a ‘feel-good’ story to them, and have jabbed their opponents from beneath all season. They’ve also taken two points off of Real Madrid at the Bernabeu already, and as Paul Reidy mentioned in the pre-game Q&A, going into this game with momentum against a wounded Madrid side who were without Ronaldo, Bale, and Morata (and eventually Carvajal, Varane, Marcelo, and Kroos) — Mendilibar’s men couldn’t have asked for a better time to face Real Madrid.
That’s all pretty cute, but as we’ve learned for the 2nd time this season (the other being a 3-0 demolition against Sevilla in the Copa del Rey without several key starters including Ronaldo and Bale), Real Madrid have something special about them when allowing James to roam in a free role — even if he’s surrounded by role players like Asensio and Lucas Vazquez who are undeniably good.
Real Madrid were fantastic at Ipurua today. The stats will show you a relatively even game (possession and passes completed hovered around the same number equally for both sides), but the eye test will give you a deeper reality of what actually transpired — Real Madrid were so dangerous on the counter attack, and Eibar’s flanks were carved in similar fashion to what Las Palmas did at the Bernabeu on Wednesday. Give your dues: James roamed on both flanks, Benzema was both creative and clinical, and Asensio played his part in almost every important attack.
Everything about this was so freaking satisfying. pic.twitter.com/yg8IqlFf91— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) March 4, 2017
The three aforementioned players were all immense. On Real Madrid’s first goal, James switched to the left side to link up with Asensio before finding Benzema on a low-driven cross. Just a minute later, he combined in the same way with Lucas Vazquez on the right -- though his cross was intercepted. On Real Madrid’s third goal, it was Benzema’s beautiful pass (from a passing angle that wasn’t as easy as Benzema made it look) that found James.
Can't get over how good this pass is. pic.twitter.com/fovud5tBs6— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) March 4, 2017
Now will come all the questions (almost not looking forward to this part at all): Is this team better without Ronaldo and Bale? Let’s not jump the gun. Just be happy that in a very condensed schedule, Real Madrid’s depth will be their strongest asset. This team has looked so good in so many different situations (and so bad in so many others), that there isn’t enough sample size to judge anything. And besides, Zidane doesn’t seem to care much about form when he picks his line-ups, and it appears the rotation system is more elaborate than that.
But there is something clear: James will never be able to roam like this with Bale in the line-up, and where you have multiple starters to channel the offense through, even if you shoehorn the Colombian in there, he will be isolated and be a mere outlet — as was the case against Valencia. To get the best of James, you have to play him in a free role like today, and it’s just not possible to do consistently.
Eibar did score eventually, by the way, after Pedro Leon swiped Nacho’s face without getting penalized, and his cross eventually found Pena who beat Danilo to the ball. It’s annoying, to be sure, that Real Madrid didn’t keep a clean sheet, and it’s more annoying how it went down — a bad non-call and Danilo of all people being the culprit. To be clear, Danilo shouldn’t be the culprit at all, and he had a good game all things considered (more in tomorrow’s column), and I think that’s an important point to note given how many people in my mentions were upset about Carvajal being rested for this match.
That’s that, on to Naples. Coming up: player ratings, match review, and a post-game pod tomorrow evening.