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Immediate Reaction: Espanyol 0 - Real Madrid 1

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A bit of ingenuity from Karim Benzema and a fourth goal of the league season from Casemiro gave Madrid 3 crucial points in a tightly contested affair

RCD Espanyol v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

“We won’t be complacent. We’re aware of the situation and that it’s top versus bottom, but that counts for nothing in football and you’ve got to go out there and prove it on the pitch.”

Despite traveling to Barcelona to face the team rock bottom of La Liga, Zidane knew the game would be tough. Espanyol set-up in a well organized block of eight within their 4-4-2 system. One of Espanyol’s strikers, Wu Lei or Raul De Tomas, would drop deep to help defensively and suffocate Madrid’s space in the middle of the pitch. Once the ball was won, Espanyol looked to counter and exploit the space behind one of the fullbacks — predominantly using Wu Lei’s speed vs Marcelo and Ramos.

It’s never easy to break down a collective unit and an organized defensive block, yet Madrid were probing. Madrid’s movement for much of the first half was too static, but after the “cooling break” there was a clear improvement. Benzema had a curling effort in 35th minute after cutting inside off of the left with both Hazard and Marcelo offering decoy runs. Then in the 43rd minute, Diego Lopez struggled with a cross and chaos ensued — Hazard finished the play with volley which was ultimately blocked. A mere two minutes later, the goal finally emerged with Ramos pulling off one of his opportunistic runs forward. A driven diagnol from Marcelo was flicked on by Ramos to the on-running Benzema. Benzema pulled off a “tacon de dios” (heel of god) pass to Casemrio who smashed home his fourth goal of the league season.

Three big opportunities all after the cooling break when movement in the final third increased. The dam had cracked.

Madrid had a confidence boost heading into the half-time break, but Espanyol refused to be knocked down easily. Espanyol’s defensive set-up made it so difficult to create quality chances. Couple that with their physicality and the distribution of fouls on Hazard (4) and Isco (3); a second goal looked difficult to conceive. Near the hour mark, Zidane had decided to change the two aforementioned names with the fresh and direct legs of both Rodrygo Goes and Vinicius Junior. Both Brazilians provided a threat from either wing as both were eager to drive-forward and take their full back on 1v1.

Despite the lone goal, Madrid always looked in control. Espanyol hardly threatened in the second half. The central core of the team — Varane, Ramos, Kroos, and Benzema — made the game look easy. Their superior technical quality and understanding of the game put a tightly contested affair in cruise control. It was far from the most entertaining encounter, but Madrid on their fifth game in a little more than two weeks never had to shift into a higher gear.

We will break this game down further in the coming hours with a post-match podcast, player ratings, quotes, key story-lines, and tactical tidbits.