Real Madrid secured a late victory over Alavés to go top of LALIGA courtesy of Lucas Vázquez’s header which sealed a 1-0 win at Mendizorroza. It was tough going for the visitors in their final game before the winter break, with no breakthrough coming and captain Nacho sent off before the hour mark, but Lucas found a way through in injury time to give the away team the three points.
1. How would a makeshift back four get on?
Injuries to David Alaba and Ferland Mendy against Villarreal completed the set as all four of Real Madrid’s first-choice defenders were ruled out of action for this tie. That provided opportunities, with Lucas Vázquez continuing on the right, with Antonio Rüdiger selected alongside Nacho Fernández in the middle, and Fran García given a rare start on the left. The complication of Nacho’s red card before the hour mark forced Carlo Ancelotti to add Aurelién Tchouameni into the equation, with the Frenchman dropping into the defensive line to replace the club captain after his dismissal. Even still, with only 11 goals conceded after 18 league games, this is the joint best Real Madrid defence in history, and the best since 1971/72. Not bad for a bunch of reserves.
2. Would the conditions have an influence?
Earlier this month, Carlo Ancelotti hit out at LALIGA’s scheduling of this game. “The schedule? What can we do? It would be good if they hadn’t given us a game on Thursday 21st at 9:30pm,” he said in his pre-match press conference ahead of the win over Granada. “I think it will be cold in Vitoria. But it’s what there is. We could have had it before, we have players going to South America for Christmas, and they will have few rest days. It doesn’t make sense to play on the 21st at 9:30pm.” He was fortunate in that his weather prediction was not entirely accurate, with a mild 11°C/52°F as the game was played on Thursday night, but the timing remained inconvenient. Fighting to the death was a real testament to the spirit and attitude of this team, and as it moved them to top, it reflected a determination which could be decisive.
3. Is Rafa Marín a viable option for the Real Madrid defence?
One of the best defensive performance of the game came from a man whose contract is with Real Madrid but who turned out in blue and white stripes. The 21-year-old centre-back has been linked with a possible return to the Bernabéu to rejoin his parent club this week, and he made a good case for himself in this audition. 68 appearances for Castilla didn’t earn him a first team spot, but he’s been consistently solid for Alavés since joining on loan and this was one of his best performances yet. He won more tackles than anyone else on the field, alongside six duels, and making six clearances. He was key to silencing Rodrygo and Brahim, with both struggling to get past him and Marín positioned himself well and handled their quality excellently. He certainly gave Ancelotti food for thought.
1. Now how do you fill the gap in defence?
Nacho’s dismissal means that he will be absent when Real Madrid return after the winter break and welcome Mallorca to the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. As such, Ancelotti will have his defensive selection headache made even worse. Given the short timeframe, which may make it tricky to make a signing or even to recall Marín and agree a deal with Alavés in time, it seems inevitable that it will be Tchouameni who will start in the central defensive role again, filling in as he did for the final 30 minutes in Vitoria. Beyond that, Ancelotti will have to look to Castilla, and players like Raul Asencio and Marvel, as options if he is to have any central defenders on the sidelines and available to call upon.
2. Should we worry about Jude Bellingham’s discipline record?
On 85 minutes, Jude Bellingham crashed into Nahuel Tenaglia with a heavy tackle to earn himself a third yellow card in as many games. It was a reckless challenge, as shown by him throwing his hands up in the air in apology immediately after, but a worrying trend to his game too. He is now up to six yellow cards in all competitions and is only one yellow card away from suspension in LALIGA as this took him to four. Coming after he clashed with referee Jorge Figueroa Vázquez on Sunday night, there may be concerns that Bellingham is developing a reputation for himself among the refereeing circle. Even so, easing off in the new year would be most welcome to give Ancelotti as many options as possible.
3. Can Real Madrid stay top?
Girona’s 1-1 draw with Real Betis earlier on Thursday evening, which also had late drama as Germán Pezzella scored for Betis on 88 minutes, meant that a win here would send Real Madrid top and that’s exactly what they did. For much of this game it felt as though there could be two points dropped and an opportunity missed. Instead, Lucas’ late heroics mean that the team go into the winter break on a high, top of LALIGA, and all set to become the ‘winter champion’ as the Spanish say, by being top of the league at the halfway point, which will come after the first game of 2024. Now, Ancelotti will want to extend that stay at the top of the league to capitalise. The seven goal advantage on goal difference is what currently puts Real Madrid top, and the 3-0 win at Montilivi earlier in the campaign will make the difference come the end of the season, but now it’s time for Los Blancos to open up that gap.