There was drama at Mestalla as Vinícius and Karim Benzema scored late to earn Real Madrid an epic 2-1 come-from-behind victory, the kind that can win league titles. There’s so much to discuss from the match at Valencia, so here come the main talking points in the form of the questions that were answered and the new questions that have been created.
1. How much would Ancelotti rotate?
This was the first week with midweek football, so it’s time for coaches to start rotating their line-ups. Ancelotti was asked about this in his pre-match press conference and played down the idea that he would make many changes for this trip to Valencia. “I don’t think there will be major rotations, but we obviously need to change some players,” he said. In the end, it was just one change to the starting XI compared to the team he put out at Inter, with Lucas Vázquez out and with Eden Hazard in. That was a logical change anyway, so Ancelotti isn’t in rotations mode yet. And that’s fine. Midweek football is now here, but it’s only the first week of it. Perhaps at home to Real Mallorca in the next match is the time to start dishing out some rest.
2. Would Hazard survive a Bordalás game?
So, Hazard did start and he did so after several days nursing a minor knee injury. It maybe wasn’t then best time, then, to be going up against a José Bordalás side. The new Valencia coach is known for constructing physical football teams, with his Getafe side regularly topping the charts for most fouls and bookings. His Valencia outfit are committing 14 fouls per game, which is the fifth most in LaLiga, and there are a lot of hard fouls too. So, how would Hazard and his ankles cope? Well, the Belgian did surprisingly well and put together a very impressive first half, one of his best 45 minutes in a Real Madrid shirt. He didn’t look at all scared. Quite the opposite, he looked confident. There was also one concrete moment where it was Hazard outmuscling a Bordalás player, as he shepherded the ball out for a goal kick under pressure from Thierry Correia. Although Hazard was less effective after the break, he lasted 78 minutes. He was more than up to this challenge.
3. Would González Fuertes get in the way of the spectacle?
When Pablo González Fuertes is refereeing a match, that’s not usually a good thing. Not because of favouring any particular side or anything like that, but because he is one of the most authoritarian officials in Spanish football and he slows every match down to the point where there’s little room for any actual football to happen. Over his 18 matches in 2021 before this one, there were just 28 goals for an average of 1.56 per match, way down on the LaLiga average of 2.51. That makes sense because his way of refereeing means play is frequently stopped and no momentum can be built up. Ultimately, that means fewer goals. There was a bit of that in this game, especially in the first half, but Real Madrid’s urgency in the final 20 minutes meant that we did still get to enjoy a lot of football. It wasn’t because González Fuertes changed his style, though.
1. Will Real Madrid’s fitness and their bench mean lots of late goals?
We could see many more late goals from Real Madrid this season and there are two reasons why. One is that Real Madrid’s fitness seems to have dramatically improved this season with the return of Antonio Pintus, meaning they can outlast their opponents and pick them off towards the end of matches. It happened against Inter and it happened against Valencia, with this Sunday’s effort especially impressive when considering Los Che had benefited from a free midweek. The other reason is that teams are still able to make five substitutions in matches instead of three. For bigger clubs with better squads, that’s an advantage, as Ancelotti explained in Sunday’s press conference when he said: “The key is there with the five substitutions because I have a bench with a lot of quality.” The combination of fitter players and quality off the bench should see Real Madrid take advantage of opponents who burn themselves out too quickly, like Inter and Valencia have done.
2. What is the short-term right-back solution?
Dani Carvajal is injured again. After missing 36 of Real Madrid’s 52 matches last season and also the start to this season, the academy graduate looks set for another spell on the sidelines after he had to go off in the first half of this game at Mestalla. Lucas Vázquez replaced him on the night, but this wasn’t a good outing for the versatile Spaniard. His terrible attempt at a clearance was what set Hugo Duro up for the goal, while Valencia had further joy on Lucas’ side for most of the night. So, now what? In the likely absence of Carvajal, will Ancelotti persist with Lucas and hope that he can perform better if given a run of starts? Or, will the Italian consider deploying Nacho or Éder Militão at right-back and using the other to partner David Alaba in central defence? We’ll soon find out, with the games coming thick and fast.
3. What was today’s reason for Miguel Gutiérrez not featuring?
On the other side of defence, we still have so many questions about the left-back spot. Ferland Mendy and Marcelo are still injured, but it was centre-back Nacho who played there against Valencia and not the natural fit Miguel Gutiérrez. Just like against Inter. In midweek, Ancelotti explained that he opted for Nacho over Miguel Gutiérrez because of the former’s experience and because such experience is so important for big Champions League games. So, was it for that same reason that Miguel Gutiérrez didn’t start against Valencia? Or, was this weekend’s decision based on a different logic? Either way, Miguel Gutiérrez has now gone two matches in a row without having a single minute, even when Real Madrid’s two senior left-backs have been out injured. That’s a little odd.