Real Madrid got the three points from this midweek league game against Athletic Club, thanks to a 3-1 win with a Toni Kroos strike and a Karim Benzema brace. There are several questions to discuss from this game, starting with one about why it was even taking place in the first place.
1. Why was this Matchday 19 game taking place?
This is a midweek of Copa del Rey action for most teams in Spain, but for the four Supercopa teams – Real Madrid, Athletic Club, Barcelona and Real Sociedad – this was a midweek of LaLiga action. The reason is that these four teams will play each other at Sevilla’s La Cartuja next month for the first trophy of 2021 and that these four teams are also exempt from playing in the first round of this season’s Copa del Rey, so the Spanish football authorities decided that it would make sense to get these teams to play league games amongst each other now. That way, they’ll have a bit of breathing room to fit in the Supercopa fixtures when they need to do so in January. So, this is why Real Madrid and Athletic Club were playing this Matchday 19 fixture now, between Matchdays 13 and 14, and it’s why Barcelona will similarly face Real Sociedad tomorrow night.
2. Would Zidane rotate for this one?
Ahead of this game, Zinedine Zidane was asked about rotations given that he’d been using the same players again and against in the past week for the huge games in a row against Sevilla, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Atlético Madrid. He was as vague as he usually is in press conferences, so there was a sense that he might make some changes for this match against a weaker opponent. But, no. The only change to the line-up that Zidane made was the forced change of the suspended Casemiro for Fede Valverde. It worked out as it’s now four wins in a row, a good run of form that has been achieved by selecting starters from a pool of just 14 players for these four matches.
3. How would Fede Valverde do?
With Valverde starting, it was going to be interesting to see how he’d do in his first start since returning from injury. The version of Valverde we saw in the post-lockdown stretch of the 2019/20 season was the worst version of Valverde we’d seen since his promotion to the first-team squad, but the version that had started the 2020/21 campaign was among the best we’ve seen of the Uruguayan. So, which version would turn up in this one as he finds his feet again after injury? Well, after the Raúl García red card and after the Athletic press died with it, we saw a very attacking Valverde. The average position of his touches during his time on the pitch was almost exactly the same as Benzema’s. Even though we know Benzema likes to drop deep, that’s still saying something. This, then, was a slightly strange game to judge Valverde on. Let’s see if he starts on Sunday again against Eibar.
1. What happened in that crazy minute 13?
Between 12:00 and 13:00 on the clock, a lot happened. First, Valverde lost the ball near the halfway line to allow Athletic Club to launch a counter attack, with Iñaki Williams bursting into the box and being shoved by Dani Carvajal. The Athletic players called for a penalty, but didn’t get it. That Carvajal challenge was with 12:18 on the clock. Then, at 12:46, Raúl García hacked away at Kroos for a second yellow, almost in frustration. It was quite a minute, with two big calls for Jesús Gil Manzano. He clearly got the Raúl García second yellow right, but that foul shouldn’t have happened because I also think it should have been a penalty on Williams, as Carvajal really does shove him in the back with no attempt to play the ball. It was a crazy and decisive minute, then. Although Raúl García would surely have got himself a second yellow before long anyway…
2. What if Asensio hadn’t been allowed to take that corner?
Let’s analyse the second Real Madrid goal a little, the go-ahead Benzema header. It was a great header by Benzema and an inch-perfect cross from Carvajal, but Marco Asensio played a role too by taking a quick corner. It wasn’t Trent Alexander-Arnold vs Barça level or anything like that, but the Spaniard did do well to spot how much space Carvajal was in and to play the ball to his teammate quickly. The Spaniard’s quickness was also vital because Rodrygo was standing on the touchline waiting to be substituted on. Had Asensio paused a little longer before taking that corner, Gil Manzano may have asked Zidane if he wanted to make the substitution there and then and that could have given Athletic even more time to set themselves. When the ball went out, after a Kroos corner from the other side, I expected the change to be made there and then. It wasn’t and within seconds Real Madrid were ahead. It’s a small detail, but maybe a significant one.
3. Is this the season that Benzema wins the Pichichi award?
At certain points of last season it looked like Benzema might finish top of the LaLiga goalscoring charts. In the end, Lionel Messi did so once again as he finished with 25 goals to Benzema’s 21. This year, though, Messi isn’t looking quite so like Messi, whereas Benzema is still putting the ball in the net from open play with consistency. The Frenchman is currently on pace to score 20 LaLiga goals this season. That’s obviously less than he managed even last year, but Messi is only on pace to score 18 league goals this season if he keeps up his current scoring rate. Maybe this is the year.