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Three answers and three questions from Real Madrid’s comeback win over Union Berlin

Little rotation, but a strong result

1. FC Union Berlin v Real Madrid CF: Group C - UEFA Champions League 2023/24 Photo by Boris Streubel/Getty Images

Real Madrid wrapped up the Champions League group stage with a dramatic 3-2 win over Union Berlin where Joselu and Dani Ceballos were the heroes, with the first getting a double as the team twice fought back to win. Kevin Volland gave the home team the lead on the stroke of half-time after a Luka Modrić penalty miss, but Joselu then scored twice to give Real Madrid the lead. Ceballos then reacted on 89 minutes with a pinpoint effort to react to Alex Kral’s smashing shot from outside the box only minutes earlier.

Three answers

1. Would Kepa justify his recall?

Back in the team after an extended spell on the sidelines, Kepa had a point to prove. Andriy Lunin came in and made a string of fine performances, but this was an opportunity for the bigger name and reputation to earn himself another chance. Kepa has done nothing wrong to lose his place, injury merely costing him the number one shirt, but now he has to earn it back. Two goals conceded, and even more so from 0.88 xG, will do little to help his case. There was little he could do about either goal, both well-taken finishes in contrasting styles, but Lunin conceded twice in only one of the past six games and Kepa did not make the shirt his own as he might have hoped. Carlo Ancelotti has a decision to make ahead of the visit of Villarreal on Sunday.

2. How many rotations would Carlo Ancelotti make?

Pre-match, Carlo Ancelotti said that “the idea I have is to evaluate the players who played at the weekend and, from there, choose the best 11”, insisting that “the idea isn’t to rotate just for the sake of it”. In total, there were five changes as Andriy Lunin, Antonio Rüdiger, Ferland Mendy, Toni Kroos and Brahim Díaz were rested, with Kepa, Nacho, Fran García, Dani Ceballos and Joselu coming in. It was perhaps less than expected, with Jude Bellingham starting yet another game, Rodrygo not being rested, and Luka Modrić making a rare second consecutive start. There had been talk of a Nico Paz start here, but he’d have to continue to wait until the very death of this game. The substitutions continued to avoid rotation, instead giving minutes to those who have plenty under their belt already. Necessary to get the win? Perhaps. Worth the risk? Who knows.

3. Could Real Madrid win all six group stages games?

With this win, which was only just secured, Real Madrid made it six wins from six in the Champions League group stages for the first time since 2014. That time, it included home and away wins over Liverpool, FC Basel and Ludogorets with 16 goals scored and only two conceded. This year, there were the same number of 16 goals scored, but seven goals conceded against Napoli, Union Berlin and Braga. Before then, the only other times it has happened this century came in 2011 (against Olympique Lyonnais, Ajax and Dinamo Zagreb) and 2002 (against Sparta Prague, Panathinaikos and Porto), in the second group stage of that format. It’s a remarkable achievement, but there is a long way to go yet.

Three questions

1. What will it take for Carlo Ancelotti to rotate?

Complaints from Carlo Ancelotti about the fixture schedule and congestion this season have been commonplace, and with good reason. However, it always feels a little hypocritical when he doesn’t then take advantages of games like this one to make changes. Guaranteed top spot in the group, the only thing at stake was prize money for the result of this individual game. And yet still, the Italian opted not to rest several key players and stuck only to his senior squad. The likes of Paz, Gonzalo García and Mario Martín on the bench must be wondering what it will take for them to get a chance, especially as it was Toni Kroos, Antonio Rüdiger and Brahim Díaz who would make it off the bench for any significant game time. Nico Paz, having been rumoured to be a possible starter, will be within his rights to feel frustrated at only getting a few minutes of injury time.

2. When will Jude Bellingham serve his Champions League suspension?

Leading on from that very point of rotation, Jude Bellingham squared up to Rani Khedira and came away with a yellow card for his troubles. It means he’s one game away from suspension, and will be suspended for the next game following his next game between now and a potential Champions League semi-final. That could prove very costly, and is seemingly needless. With the draw yet to be made for the knock-out round, this game would almost certainly be less pivotal than a first or second leg tie against the elite. Union Berlin had nothing to play for and had not yet won a game in the competition this season, so there was little need to risk this for Bellingham. While it showed a little immaturity on his behalf, it also shows some foolish decision making from his coach to put him on the field.

3. Do Real Madrid have a penalty problem?

When Luka Modrić hit his penalty kick straight down the middle, he became the fourth Madridista to miss a penalty this season. He joins Vinícius Júnior who missed in the preseason Clásico in the summer, and then Rodrygo Goes against Celta Vigo and Joselu against Osasuna. Modrić has only previously missed one of his four penalties for Real Madrid before, against El Ahly in the Club World Cup in February of this year, but has scored against Elche, Celtic and Rayo Vallecano in 2022. Carlo Ancelotti now faces a dilemma over who should take the spot-kicks going forward. The obvious candidate may be leading scorer Jude Bellingham, who has only taken two penalties before, but scored both for Borussia Dortmund.

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