It felt like 2016/17 all over again, but without the late victory this time. Even with Zinedine Zidane in the dugout and James Rodríguez and Gareth Bale involved on the pitch, there was no Ninety-Ramos-th-minute magic, as Karim Benzema’s 82nd minute goal was followed by an equaliser from Sergi Guardiola.
This game and result threw up a lot of questions, but we also got some answers. The focus is logically on James and Bale, but there were some other interesting aspects to this game and they’re discussed below.
1. How will James and Bale be received?
If jaws dropped a little last weekend when Bale was present in the starting line-up against Celta Vigo, then jaws truly fell to the ground like the Genie in Aladdin this week when both James and Bale started against Real Valladolid. It was the first time they’d played together since November 19th of 2016, in that 3-0 derby win in the final season of the Vicente Calderón. Fans didn’t expect them to still be here, but they did give both players a warm welcome when their names were read out. Furthermore, Bale was applauded early on for his first few runs and his pressing, while the crowd oooh-ed and aaah-ed every time James lined up for a shot. James was applauded when substituted off too. In general, the Bernabéu didn’t seem too disappointed to see these players still wearing the famous white shirt.
2. Where will James play?
The other big question regarding James was how he’d fit in tactically. Remember, the Colombian didn’t join up with the rest of his teammates until the 21st day of Real Madrid’s pre-season, on July 29th, due to his participation in the Copa América. He didn’t play in pre-season or in Vigo either, so hasn’t really had much of a chance to learn about Zidane’s new setup, if we can call it new that is... What we saw was that James was given some license to roam on the right of the pitch. With Casemiro as the anchor, James formed one corner of a triangle on the right that also included Dani Carvajal and Gareth Bale, slightly behind and ahead of them respectively. The Colombian’s link-up play was decent, but especially exciting was his sense for arriving at the penalty area at the right moment - or, unfortunately for him, the almost right moment.
3. Will it be another difficult match against Real Valladolid?
Yes, it really was. Real Valladolid caused Real Madrid problems last season, even if Los Blancos won both matches. In the first game at the Bernabéu, Real Madrid won 2-0 but didn’t score until the final 10 minutes and only did so through an own goal and a penalty. Then, away at the Estadio José Zorrilla in March, Real Madrid won 4-1 somehow, but could have been multiple goals down at half-time. The way Sergio González sets up Real Valladolid in their counter-attacking 4-4-2 clearly causes Real Madrid problems. It did again this weekend as Zidane’s side failed to get the win.
1. How much will James and Bale play?
We saw James and Bale both given a chance to prove themselves to Zidane, and both players performed fairly well. But we have to remember that the coach did want both of them out the club this summer and that this Welsh-Colombian partnership was only really made possible because of the injuries to Eden Hazard, Marco Asensio, Brahim Díaz and Mariano. If both players remain at the club beyond transfer deadline day on September 2nd, their talent means they’ll be given opportunities. But for these two stars to align on the right of Real Madrid’s attack again? That might come around once in a blue moon.
2. Is right-back a problem?
In this writer’s view, Álvaro Odriozola was the worst performer in the Real Madrid team in Vigo and back-from-suspension Dani Carvajal was the weak link this week. He was slow, imprecise and often wildly out of position. So do Real Madrid have a problem at right-back? Marcelo’s terrible form dominated the headlines in 2018/19, slightly overshadowing the fact that Carvajal also had one of his poorest campaigns. But Real Madrid went out and signed Ferland Mendy to provide competition in the summer, at the same time as Marcelo got back in proper shape. Left-back shouldn’t be as serious a problem this year, but perhaps right-back could be. We’ll quickly find out.
3. Could Benzema win his first Pichichi?
Benzema has never finished as top scorer in the Spanish league. It makes sense given that he his time in Spain coincided with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s decade of dominance. This year, though, there could be an opportunity. Ronaldo is gone and Messi’s share of Barcelona’s goals could come down now that Antoine Griezmann has joined the Argentine in attack. The figure needed to win the Pichichi award this season could be lower than it has been in several seasons and Benzema already has two goals from two games.