They left it late, once again starting slowly in a home game against a smaller team, but Real Madrid did eventually get the three points against Elche thanks to Karim Benzema, with the No.9 leading his team to a 2-1 come-from-behind victory. With Atalanta just around the corner, we have so many talking points from this Saturday afternoon game and six of them are discussed below.
1. Would this be another home disappointment against a smaller side?
Already this season, Real Madrid had suffered home defeats against Cádiz, Alavés and Levante in LaLiga. With this in mind, one question Zidane was asked in the pre-match press conference was about Real Madrid’s tendency to approach home fixtures against theoretically weaker opposition with a lack of intensity. The coach said his usual line about how Real Madrid try to win every game. However, once again this was a case of Real Madrid starting lethargically against a smaller team. They started slowly and allowed the relegation-battling side to grow in confidence. Although Real Madrid were able to pull off the comeback thanks a fantastic Benzema, this was another case of an ‘easier’ fixture being much more difficult than it should have been.
2. Would we see Ramos or Hazard?
Zidane was also very coy in his pre-match press conference when it came to discussing Sergio Ramos and Eden Hazard. He confirmed they’d be in the matchday squad, but that was it. He wouldn’t say if they would start. So, this was one of the major pre-match questions and we saw that Ramos was given a start, deployed in a back three. The Spaniard played 60 minutes, going off straight after the Elche goal after a so-so performance where he at least managed to shake off the rust from not playing for three months. Hazard, meanwhile, came on for the final 15 minutes. The Belgian was very active, although it was Benzema who stole the show during his time on the pitch.
3. How would the Benzema and Vinícius partnership do?
For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the back three system was the fact that it meant Real Madrid had just two forwards in attack, with Benzema and Vinícius leading the line. So, how would they do? We’ve obviously seen the Frenchman and Brazilian play together a lot before, as 86 of Vinícius’ 102 Real Madrid appearances have coincided with Benzema. But, they’ve only ever directly combined for four goals – all of them Vini assisting Benzema. They’re two players who seem to have affection for each other – which is why all the outcry after Mönchengladbach-gate was overblown – but they do also seem to be two players who aren’t always on the same wavelength. In this game, there was one very good chance that Vinícius set up for Benzema, but the striker wasted the opportunity. There wasn’t much more connection between the pair, though, and Benzema looked much more comfortable once Real Madrid returned to a more familiar system. That’s when he scored his two goals.
1. Will Real Madrid use the back three system against Atalanta?
So, Real Madrid went out with a back three for this one. But, I don’t get the sense that Zidane is planning on using this against Atalanta. I think he used the back three as a mechanism for making rotations, similar to when he used this formation against Getafe to compensate for all the injuries that existed then. We know that Casemiro is suspended for the second leg against Atalanta, so Zidane will have to adjust his classic 4-3-3 slightly, maybe turning it into a 4-2-3-1 with Kroos and Fede Valverde sitting deeper to jointly perform the Casemiro role. But, I just don’t get the sense that this was a three-at-the-back dress rehearsal. But, comment below. What do you think?
2. Should there have been a penalty?
There were two penalty shouts in the second half of this game, one for each team. They both involved Ramos, as he was brought down by Iván Marcone in one area and as he then took down a not-offside Guido Carrillo. They both looked like penalties. So, the answer is that no, there shouldn’t have been a penalty. There should have been two. One each. So, it wasn’t a great performance from referee Jorge Figueroa Vazquéz, currently in his debut season in the top division. Interestingly, his only previous experience of coaching Real Madrid was in the first meeting between Los Blancos and Elche this season, the 1-1 in December.
3. What would Cristiano Ronaldo’s return mean for Benzema?
There has been growing talk of a potential Cristiano Ronaldo return to Real Madrid this past week. It all needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, considering the narrative is being driven by Ronaldo’s agent Jorge Mendes, but it’s an interesting idea. One big doubt I’d have, though, is how Ronaldo’s return would impact Benzema. The Frenchman has stepped up even better than expected since the Portuguese’s departure, scoring his 19th and 20th total goals of the 2020/21 season in this game. Considering he didn’t hit 20 in either of the final two seasons with Ronaldo alongside him, the potential return of the No.7 would require a complete rethinking of Benzema’s role. Ramos said this week that he’d have kept Ronaldo. I genuinely wonder whether Benzema would or wouldn’t want his former teammate to come back…