Thorough, efficient, and fun — this was Real Madrid at its best (for the majority of the game).
Solari faced an Espanyol team low on confidence tonight, and against a team thin at the centre-back position. Oscar Duarte, David Lopez, and Naldo are all currently injured, leaving Mario Hermoso as the only fit centre-back for Rubi. All this meant that Lluis Lopez (Espanyol’s B-team defender), was called up for the second consecutive match to partner Hermoso at the back.
And the frailty of their entire defensive scheme was clear from the first minute. Real Madrid were relentless in their counter-pressing (not allowing Espanyol to string anything together pass out of the back), and Karim Benzema, along with Luka Modric, were pulling the offense together, breaking down Rubi’s team over and over again.
On Real Madrid’s opening goal, in the fourth minute, Modric walked through unchallenged, pulled off a shot, and Benzema — completely unmarked — pounced on the rebound:
.@realmadrid have started early at the RCDE Stadium, scoring 2 quick-fire goals against @RCDEspanyol! Here is the moment @Benzema broke the deadlock!— Strive Sport (@strivesport) January 27, 2019
Watch La Liga Live on Strive: https://t.co/uoTcQurTcE#LiveOnStrive #EspanyolRealMadrid pic.twitter.com/vJwglpREOM
Benzema and Modric were great tonight — particularly the former, who had a man-of-the-match performance, and put in his most impressive performance of the season. Over and over again, he sliced Espanyol open with brilliant through-balls, dribbled through defenders with ease, and was a constant menace.
Just over 10 minutes after his goal, Real Madrid doubled their lead through a perfectly executed set-piece. A short corner to Modric finds Ramos. A great leap from the captain:
From that point, Real Madrid kept control of the tempo, nullifying Espanyol’s attacks repeatedly while holding possession and putting pressure on their vulnerable backline.
Yet, Espanyol were given a lifeline in the 25th. Leo Baptistao (a player I’ve watched miss a ton of easy chances in the past two seasons, but, of course, none of that matters when playing Real Madrid), found the ball fortuitously at the far post thanks to a deflection:
Ensuing that goal, Espanyol gained some life. There were a few back-and-forth sequences where Rubi’s men looked more confident going forward, and when the game settled a bit, Espanyol went into a more compact 4-5-1 shape without the ball. But Real Madrid’s transition defense looked really good. Reguilon’s dedication to protecting that flank was helpful, as was Kroos’s pressing and Ramos’s defensive interventions.
Benzema, who used his cast the same way Thanos uses his Infinity Gauntlet, punished Espanyol just before half-time:
| LIVE |— Eleven Sports (@ElevenSports_UK) January 27, 2019
The second-half of action between Espanyol and Real Madrid is well under way...
The visitors lead 3-1 thanks to this Karim Benzema finish pic.twitter.com/xxFsQkaUIt
Benzema continued carving Espanyol in the second half, with good help from Modric and Lucas Vazquez. Vinicius had a quiet game compared to recent matches, but his effort can’t really be questioned, and his runs continually gave Espanyol something to worry about.
The Brazilian attacker was taken of for Gareth Bale in the second half. The Welshman scored Real Madrid’s fourth, in what can only be explained as ‘the perfect goal’. Lucas Vazquez steals Bapitstao’s lunch money, Benzema does some sorcery in the box, and the ball ends in Bale’s feet, capped by a brilliant turn and finish by the Samurai:
It was 4 - 1 at that point, with the game clearly sealed. And you’d think at that point, Bale could feast in transition, with Espanyol chasing the game. But the rest of the match wasn’t routine by any means. Things got complicated when Raphael Varane was sent off in the 72nd minute for tackling Piatti as the last man. With no natural central defender on the bench (Nacho was brought on for Ramos at half-time, as the captain had a knock), Solari brought on Marcelo, and shifted Reguilon to the center-back position.
Espanyol pulled a goal back through Roberto Rosales. Marcelo keeping the goalscorer onside:
But Real Madrid held on for another three points. This is a really good string of performances put together by Solari here — and with players returning from injury (with others returning to form), you can’t help but feel a little better about the team’s direction this season.
There are a lot of talking points to break down from this game which I didn’t have time to write about here. Don’t miss tonight’s podcast.