Real Madrid are into the Champions League last 16 and they’re through as group winners after a 2-0 victory over Borussia Mönchengladbach. There were so many pre-match questions that have been answered and now there are many new questions as we look ahead to the next round and to the rest of the December fixtures. Here comes a look at all of that.
1. First? Second? Third? Fourth?
There was one main pre-match question, of course. Where would Real Madrid finish in this group? It was possible for them to finish in any one of the four spots in this group of death, a group so deadly that everyone has been taking points off each other. It could be glory. It could be complete failure. It could be… Europa League memes. In the end, it went as perfectly as possible. Karim Benzema turned up on the big occasion to make the most of two excellent crosses from Lucas Vázquez and Rodrygo and Los Blancos top the group, something they didn’t even manage last season despite sealing qualification with a round to spare in 2019/20.
2. What midfield would Zidane go for?
Most of the team selection question marks coming in to this game were about midfield. There was a question mark at right-back given that Dani Carvajal had just come back from injury and had just become a father, but it was mostly in the centre that there was uncertainty. Would Zinedine Zidane opt for the double pivot again? Would it be a diamond with Isco? Would it be the trio from the three-peat? In the end, it was the final option and it worked perfectly. It worked so perfectly because Luka Modrić was absolutely spectacular. Even at 35 years of age, he was the best player on the pitch as he passed and dribbled and shot Real Madrid towards the last 16. The Croatian combined so well with Lucas Vázquez and with Rodrygo and was the first one there to celebrate with the young Brazilian after his assist for the second goal. Modrić was the leader in every sense in this game.
3. How would Benzema do on his record-equalling night?
This was Benzema’s 527th match for Real Madrid, meaning he now has the same number of appearances as Roberto Carlos to become the joint-top non-Spanish appearance maker for the club. On this record-equalling night, one of the pre-match questions was how would Benzema do? With Mariano and Luka Jović both unavailable, all the goalscoring pressure was on his shoulders and he went into the match knowing he’d have to play 90 minutes. But, no problem. His two first half headers sent Real Madrid on their way and they mean Benzema now has 69 goals in the Champions League.
1. Who next?
Now that Real Madrid are through, thoughts can turn to Monday’s draw – which will take place at 12:00 CET (06:00 ET). There are only four possible opponents for Real Madrid given that three of the group runners-up are Spanish and they can’t play a fellow LaLiga side and given that they also can’t face Borussia Mönchengladbach again. This leaves Porto, RB Leipzig, Lazio and Atalanta as the four teams Real Madrid could get. According to stats man Mister Chip, RB Leipzig is the most likely with a 30.923% possibility, followed by Lazio (25.688%), Atalanta (23.419%) and Porto (19.970%).
MADRID-LEIPZIG (31%) ES EL DUELO MÁS PROBABLE del sorteo de octavos de la Champions League 2020-21.— MisterChip (Alexis) (@2010MisterChip) December 9, 2020
Aquí tenéis la tabla con todos los posibles cruces y la probabilidad de cada uno de ellos #UCL pic.twitter.com/hEhrI3tQJO
2. What to make of Zidane’s trust in Sergio Arribas?
With 15 minutes to go, this game was certainly not over. Real Madrid had a two-goal lead, but one Borussia Mönchengladbach goal could have made for a very nervy final few minutes. So, it says a lot that one of the players Zidane substituted on was Sergio Arribas, who’d played just a few stoppage time minutes for the first team before tonight in the opening day draw at Real Sociedad. The coach didn’t just throw the 19-year-old on for fun or for a cameo. Arribas was sent on because he had Zidane’s trust and because the coach believed this was a good option to see out the game. For me, that’s one of the takeaways from tonight that seems least important in the immediate aftermath of the result, but one that will actually seem huge when the dust settles.
3. Is my Lucas Vázquez hot take going to be right?
At the start of this season, various Managing Madrid staff members took part in a roundtable of 2020/21 season predictions. For some fun, we all had to come up with a hot take. I made a bold prediction that I only very slightly thought could come true, but it’s looking more and more likely by the week. “That Lucas Vázquez plays more minutes, scores more goals and provides more assists than Eden Hazard” was my hot take for the season and so far it’s not far off being correct. The Spaniard has more minutes (975 to 315) and more assists (2 to 0), while Hazard leads right now in goals (2 to 0). My logic was that Hazard would have another injury-plagued season because he just didn’t seem right in the summer and that has sadly come true. I did not, though, expect that Lucas would be earning so many minutes because he’d be playing at right-back and I did not expect him to play this well. He has been brilliant.