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Three answers and three questions from Real Madrid’s Copa exit in Bilbao

There’s a lot to discuss after what was surely the worst performance of the season. 

Athletic Club v Real Madrid - Copa del Rey Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

A late Álex Berenguer goal sent Athletic Club through and knocked Real Madrid out in the Copa del Rey, with the Basque side finally overcoming Los Blancos in their fourth meeting of the 2021/22 season. From start to finish, Real Madrid played a poor game at San Mamés, one that conjured up many big questions at the same time as answering a few of the pre-match doubts. Here, then, comes a look at the main talking points from a disappointing night for the capital city side.

Three answers

1. How big a role would the South Americans play?

Given the weird circumstances of the shoehorned-in winter international break, several members of the Real Madrid squad had been involved in South American qualifiers 42 hours before kick-off in Bilbao. Even if not all of them played in the early hours of Wednesday morning, the travel back to Spain would have taken a lot out of them, as Matt Wiltse explained in a good thread – copied below – on Twitter. So, it was very weird, then, to see Casemiro, Rodrygo and Vinícius in the starting XI after they were three of the late returnees. They each looked tired, with Vini nowhere near his explosive best and with a lazy Casemiro pass late on giving the ball away for the Athletic goal. Despite the obvious talent of this trio, surely Real Madrid would have been better off with three fresher players in those positions.

2. How different would the attack be without Benzema?

Karim Benzema wasn’t back from injury in time for this one, so decisions had to be made in attack. This wasn’t the first time Ancelotti was without the Frenchman this campaign, but it was a big game for the striker to be missing for and the coach didn’t trust Luka Jović to lead the line. Instead, he had Marco Asensio and then Isco as false nines, which just didn’t work. Although they’re both technical players, there is nobody like Benzema when it comes to creating and finishing attacks. This game was exhibit A for how Real Madrid’s attack revolves around Benzema.

3. Alaba or Nacho at left-back?

The other big selection question mark was at left-back, with Ferland Mendy injured and Marcelo suspended. Ancelotti said pre-match that it would be one of David Alaba or Nacho at that position, with the other at centre-back. We didn’t know exactly which way round it would be until the ball got rolling, but then we saw that it was Alaba out wide at left-back and Nacho in the centre. Of all the decisions Ancelotti made on the night, many of which he’ll be rightly criticised for, he surely got this one correct. Nacho was generally good, even if he wasn’t tight enough for the goal, while Alaba got forward from the left as much, or more, as Mendy would have.

Three questions

1. Was this the worst performance of Real Madrid’s season?

Real Madrid were deservedly beaten in this game. From start to finish, Athletic were the better side. So, was this the worst Real Madrid performance of the season? Well, not according to Ancelotti. He explicitly denied this when speaking in his post-match press conference. Surely the coach knows that this was the worst performance of the campaign so far and is just trying to present a more optimistic discourse for his players. Because Real Madrid played even poorer here than they did against Espanyol, Sheriff or Getafe.

2. Will Vinícius be back to his best after his break?

Whether or not Vinícius should have played this game straight after returning from Brazil duty, the reality now is that he’ll have nine days off before his next match. The 21-year-old is suspended for this weekend’s game at home to Granada and then Real Madrid now have a free midweek next week because of this cup exit. Vini’s next game will be away at Villarreal on February 12th and this week-and-a-half rest might be exactly what he needs. Physically, he hasn’t had his usual spark for a few weeks already. And mentally, a break will surely help too. In this game in Bilbao, we saw how easily the Athletic players got under Vinícius’ skin, something he had been good at avoiding all season long. Let’s hope this nine-day break allows Vinícius to enjoy the recharge that he deserves and to return back at his best.

3. Will Real Madrid ever win the Copa del Rey again?

For Real Madrid, this Copa del Rey exit prolongs their drought in this competition. Not since 2013/14, during Ancelotti’s previous stint, have they lifted the Copa del Rey. For Real Madrid, that’s far too long to go without winning the second most important domestic competition, even if they’ve had even longer Copa del Rey droughts than this over the years. Even if they win the LaLiga Santander title this year, it now won’t be a double, something they’ve not achieved since 1988/89. You could see from Nacho’s post-match interview that he and the squad really wanted to win another Copa del Rey. But, it won’t be this year.