The delicacy of Karim Benzema’s backheel was the symphonic highlight of the magical sequence that led to Casemiro’s winner against Espanyol on Sunday. Los Blancos were laboring to break the deadlock against the last placed team and it looked like they would be heading into the dressing room at half time without a goal.
And then it happened. To the eye, there wasn’t much to the overall play. The ball was pinged around the pitch following a corner before landing at the feet of the club’s fifth all-time goal scorer. Benzema, who has been one of the biggest protagonists in Real Madrid’s race to the finish line, mesmerized the entire world with a breath taking pass. However, let’s rewind to the genesis of the play.
The golazo begins with a corner kick
Zidane has drilled the “finals” narrative into the team and it has been quite apparent (perhaps as a result of situational factors such as play resuming after such a long break) when watching matches. The team seems dialed in and engaged at a deeper level. Actions seem to matter more and games appear to be taking on a different weight.
There seemed to be an urgency that translated across the screen when Real Madrid flooded the box for the corner. Only Marcelo, Carvajal and Valverde were behind the play while every other player was in the target area. Most of the players including Casemiro positioned themselves at the back post while Ramos occupied the near post and Hazard sat a little further out in that same area.
Casemiro starts retreating but has a second thought
The corner did not amount to much as it was cleared out by Espanyol. While several of the away side’s players lingered in their advanced positioning, Casemiro immediately shifted wide towards the side line. This was to presumably give the ball carrier an option for a pass (and indirectly reduce congestion) while slowly making his way back to midfield.
However, as soon as Carvajal switched the play — Casemiro noticed how far up his teammates were and Espanyol being consequently forced back. It looked like a switch went off in his head as he reversed course and started looking to be played out wide. Casemiro, of all players, was eagerly and genuinely looking for the ball to be played to him signalling the team’s intent and the pressure they felt to win. Especially as they neared half time.
Ramos again - the Captain’s importance to offense
Sergio Ramos’ offensive production is more than just his incredible impact on set pieces as the center back is playing a very real part in the team’s attack. The bearded leader provided a vital contribution to Casemiro’s goal as he stayed up to contest a long ball (that he had authoritatively gestured for) from Marcelo.
This particular instance was a microcosm of the center back equilibrium between Ramos and his long-time partner, Varane. The two - from personality to play style wonderfully contrast each other in the best way. They do so in a complementary fashion and it has reached a point where they have matured into their current roles as a matter of second nature.
While Ramos threw his hand up with a pleading facial expression for Marcelo to quickly take advantage of the rare aerial advantage they momentarily had in attack (which has been missing since the days of BBC), Varane was dutifully returning to station.
Benzema’s class elevates the team
Despite the tactical framework and the other critical individual player actions that occurred, this play lives and dies with Benzema’s wizardry. Benzema added another moment of absolute brilliance to his fine collection. The Frenchman beautifully read the development of play as Marcelo launched the ball towards Ramos.
The striker’s awareness of space and reference points then kicked into gear as he latched onto Ramos’ nodded pass, protected it from the Espanyol defender and artfully slid it perfectly into Casemiro’s path - all the while facing the opposite direction. Casemiro, if you remember, wouldn’t have been able to be in that position if he hadn’t identified the potential (however low at the time) of Real Madrid capitalizing on their residual numerical advantage in Espanyol’s half. The Brazilian scoring further reinforced the democratic distribution of goals this season.
And that was that, a moment many Real Madrid fans will be reliving over many years to come. However, for right now, it’s just another step the team needed to take as they continue their challenging, exasperating and difficult march to the final minute of match day 38.