Wednesday night brought about the first Copa del Rey match of Real Madrid’s season as they went away to Unionistas de Salamanca and won 3-1, with a Gareth Bale opener and a Brahim Díaz brace. This first fixture of the tournament for Los Blancos brought up our usual three answers and three questions and we lay them out below.
1. Would Zidane use any Casilla players?
No is the answer to this one, and we actually learned this answer before the match with the announcement of the squad list and the absence of any B team players in the travelling contingent. Even though the new Copa del Rey rules mean that there must be seven senior players on the pitch at any time, this was still an opportunity to give first-team minutes to a few of the brightest Castilla players, who are already used to this level. Yet Zinedine Zidane named a very strong squad and then line-up as he set out to get the job done.
2. How would Areola do?
I could make several of these answers about each player’s individual performance, since we had some interesting names in the line-up, but the one I was most interested in was that of Alphonse Areola. When he arrived at Real Madrid, he was touted as a player who could actually displace Thibaut Courtois in the goal, but the Belgian has been so good in recent weeks that Areola hasn’t played since the Club Brugge dead rubber on December 11th. How would he do in this one? Would he be rusty? Well, it turned out that he was in good form. There wasn’t too much for him to do and there was no way he was saving Álvaro Romero’s strike for Unionistas, but he did come up big by making three saves. One of them was particularly impressive, coming in the 78th minute to keep Real Madrid in the lead as he denied Carlos de la Nava from really close range.
3. How would Real Madrid cope with the pitch?
It’s a bit of a stretch to call the Estadio Las Pistas del Helmántico a stadium. The home ground of Unionistas de Salamanca is tiny and this is what caused so much venue drama in the build-up to this game. In the end, the match went ahead at the Segunda B team’s home ground and this was probably the right decision, but this didn’t change the fact that this was a very basic football pitch. It didn’t help that the pitch was covered in snow on Tuesday. From the first couple of minutes of this match, you could tell that the turf was nowhere near as smooth as the Real Madrid players are used to and this caused problems for the dribblers like Vinícius and for the passers like James Rodríguez. Zidane even admitted afterwards that it was a problem. Yet Real Madrid overcame this challenge and can take comfort in the fact that they won’t play on a field as poor in the rest of the season. Perhaps ever.
1. How serious is Bale’s injury?
Bale was back… and then he wasn’t. The Welshman had to go off in the 53rd minute of this one with an ankle sprain. Zidane said in his post-match press conference that Bale will be evaluated on Thursday, but this isn’t a positive development. We all know that a minor injury can turn into weeks and weeks of absence with Bale, so Zidane will be hoping that the Welshman can shake this one off. Even more so as there is Copa del Rey action again next Wednesday for Real Madrid. It would be useful if Bale could lead the line again in that one.
2. Does this mean Brahim will stay?
Brahim Díaz was the hero of the night, scoring two goals. One of them was lucky. One of them was brilliant. And, there was also his effort off the post. After coming on for Bale towards the start of the second half, the Spaniard turned in one of his best performances in a Real Madrid shirt. So, does this mean he’s going to stay at the club? Are all the reports about him leaving in January to be discarded? Well, not if you ask Zidane. Brahim’s future was brought up in the post-match press conference and Zidane wasn’t buying the idea that this alters the 20-year-old’s path. “These matches don’t change anything, everyone knows their situation,” he said. So, it looks like Brahim’s January transfer saga will play out just as it would have had he not featured in Salamanca. We’ll wait and see.
3. Can Zidane win his first Copa del Rey?
This was the first match of this year’s tournament for Real Madrid, so now is a logical time to ask if they can go all the way. It feels like Zidane is really keen to win this Copa del Rey, the only tournament he hasn’t won with Real Madrid as either a player or a coach. His line-up for this match was stronger than his line-ups for matches in the earlier rounds during his previous stint as coach. You don’t play Casemiro and Karim Benzema from the start if you’re not serious about winning this tournament. We’ll now have to wait to see who Los Blancos get next and if they can go all the way.