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Three answers and three questions from Real Madrid’s thrashing of Villarreal

From selection debates to injury worries

Real Madrid CF v Villarreal CF - LaLiga EA Sports Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

Real Madrid climbed to the top of LALIGA at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu on Sunday night as they trounced Villarreal with a comfortable 4-1 victory courtesy of goals from four different scorers. Jude Bellingham opened the scoring, before Rodrygo Goes added to it with Brahim Díaz and Luka Modrić getting in on the act in the second after José Luis Morales pulled one back for the visitors.

Three answers

1. Would Kepa keep his place in goal?

Most indications leading up to this tie were that Kepa would be the man to start between the sticks again for Real Madrid after returning against Union Berlin on Tuesday. The loanee didn’t have his best game, but appeared to be Carlo Ancelotti’s strongly preferred choice despite Andriy Lunin’s recent form since stepping up. Most Spanish media predicted that it would be Kepa starting, but it was in fact the Ukrainian who was named between the sticks. This was the 24-year-old goalkeeper’s fifth consecutive start in LALIGA, his longest run in the competition since he moved to Spain in 2018. His previous best was four for Real Madrid in October 2022, with three wins and one draw, conceding two goals and keeping two clean sheets. This time, he’s up to five with four wins and one draw, three goals conceded and two clean sheets.

2. Could Real Madrid take advantage of Barcelona and Atleti’s slip-ups?

This weekend looks like it could be one of those that we remember come late May as we look back on how the season unfolded. Girona, Real Madrid’s closest title rivals, may not be able to see out a full campaign at this level, and haven’t yet played until their Monday night clash with Alavés. The next two nearest rivals are Barcelona, whose woeful form continued as they failed to take their chances and were held 1-1 by Valencia at Mestalla, and Atlético Madrid, who were played off the park by Athletic Club in Bilbao. That meant that Real Madrid could spend Sunday night one-point clear at the top and some seven points ahead of Barcelona, and eight ahead of Atlético who have played one game fewer. That’s a reasonable distance to build up before the halfway point of the season.

3. Would any of the reserves have earned a place in the team?

The away victory in midweek in Berlin saw Dani Ceballos and Joselu the heroes, with Fran García among those to stand out as well, in what was an opportunity for the second string to show what they were capable of. However, Carlo Ancelotti reverted to type with his team selection and trusted the old guard, with Luka Modrić starting his third game in a row for the first time this season. Toni Kroos replaced Ceballos and Joselu dropped out for Brahim Díaz, with Ferland Mendy and Antonio Rüdiger taking their usual places ahead of Fran García and Nacho. With no game until Thursday, Real Madrid will have a few days to rest before the winter break, but Ceballos and Joselu would have been chomping at the bit to start. García came on to replace the injured Mendy at the break, while Ceballos had to wait for the 78th minute and Joselu until the 84th.

Three questions

1. How serious is David Alaba’s injury?

While the win was a big result, one of the most important moments came on 32 minutes when David Alaba’s knee twisted awkwardly as he pressed and he went down. After three minutes on the turf and in pain, he was carried off the field by Real Madrid physios with the Austrian unable to support his own weight. Initial reactions from the medical team say that “it’s not looking good”. The 31 year old has been almost ever present, missing three games due to injury and being rested for a further three, but starting every other match. His absence now leaves Carlo Ancelotti with only Antonio Rüdiger and Nacho fit as senior central defenders. Rüdiger already has over 2,500 minutes under his belt this season and is the wrong side of 30, and Nacho is 33 and has started only four of 17 LALIGA games this campaign. Losing Alaba long-term would be a massive blow.

2. Should we just get used to Jude Bellingham scoring goals?

At what point does the exception become the norm? Because we’ve now spent four months saying that soon Jude Bellingham will stop scoring goals for fun and his tally will edge closer to his expected goals. It’s still not the case. As he headed in to score with his head for the fourth time for the club, and his 17th goal in 20 games, he opened up the gap between his goals and expected goals even further. This chance was worth 0.33 xG and he converted. His season tally is now up to 10.55 xG and 17 goals in all competitions. That’s a remarkable 61% overperformance over a run which has now extended far beyond a flash as could be thrown in Rodrygo Goes’ direction (even as he made it eight goals in as many games on Sunday night).

3. Why did the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu have the roof closed for this game?

Anyone who has been fortunate enough to attend a game at the Bernabéu with the roof on can tell you what an incredible experience it is. There aren’t many people who can do that though. This was only the second time that a game has been played with the roof on, and the first was due to a prediction of heavy rain during the game against Getafe in September. It was closed again for this match despite a dry forecast and no expectation of rain hitting the Spanish capital. Some have suggested that it was due to the low temperatures, hitting 1°C/33°F by the final whistle at 11pm, while others indicated that it was a clever marketing ploy by the club to continue to demonstrate that this stadium is by far the best in the world. Weather conditions and construction work have meant the roof hasn’t had much practice yet, but the atmosphere and spectacle step up a gear when it is put to good use like it was on Sunday night.

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