It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but Real Madrid suffered a second league loss of the season to Villarreal on Saturday night. Despite a fun attacking performance in the opening hour, Samuel Chukwueze put on a show to inspire Villarreal to a 3-2 comeback win. Even if this game didn’t matter much, and felt a little like a pre-season friendly, there’s a lot to talk about and we have three answers and three questions below.
1. Could Real Madrid keep up their good form and momentum?
With the LaLiga title race over, the only other reason for Real Madrid to care about this home fixture against Villarreal was the chance to keep up their good form and momentum ahead of the Chelsea tie. That’s why Ancelotti didn’t completely switch out the entire starting XI from the Camp Nou on Wednesday, as he wants to maintain some level of consistency and form ahead of the Champions League quarter-final first leg. He even specifically stated that as an objective in Friday’s press conference. But, Real Madrid didn’t manage to. This defeat doesn’t matter in terms of the league standings, as even being caught by Atlético doesn’t really bother those at the club now, but Real Madrid do now approach the Chelsea first leg without momentum. Will that ultimately matter? We’ll soon find out.
2. Who’d play left-back out of Alaba, Rüdiger or Nacho?
In terms of line-up related pre-match questions, the only real positional doubt was at the left-back spot, an important position considering that would mean going up against Chukwueze, one of the most in-form wide forwards in LaLiga right now. From the team sheet, it wasn’t clear who out of Alaba, Rüdiger or Nacho would start at left-back and who would play centre-back. The answer was that Nacho played left-back in this game, his eighth game this season starting on the left of defence, compared to seven at right-back and 11 at centre-back. And, he had a very difficult time up against the in-form Chukwueze. The Nigerian was the man of the match, often leaving Nacho in his wake in the highlight reel moments, especially for the first equaliser. Still, the Bernabéu appreciated Nacho’s effort throughout the match, chanting his name on more than one occasion.
3. How would the latest edition of Vinícius vs Foyth go?
It’s not quite as high-profile as the Vinícius vs Araújo duels, but the Brazilian’s battles with Juan Foyth have been almost as thrilling over the past couple of seasons. The converted right-back had done a great job of shutting down Vinícius over their previous meetings and Vini hadn’t scored or assisted in the 310 minutes he’d played against Foyth before tonight. In fact, Real Madrid had scored just one goal – a penalty – in those 310 minutes. So, would it be any different tonight? Yes, very different. Vinícius was key in both the goals, getting to the byline and playing the cutback that provoked the own goal and then brilliantly dribbling past three defenders to finish under Reina at the start of the second half. Foyth wasn’t one of those three defenders that Vini beat, on the goal at least, but this must still go down as a win in Vinícius’ duels with the Argentine, just days after he registered a win in his individual battle with Araújo.
1. Is the ‘Asensio quartet’ only for unimportant LaLiga games?
For the second weekend in a row, Real Madrid looked dynamic in attack thanks to the trident of Rodrygo, Benzema and Vinícius being backed up by Asensio’s contributions from midfield. Neither Real Valladolid nor Villarreal could contain all four of those players, creating spaces and advantageous match-ups for Los Blancos to attack into. Although the quartet didn’t finish either match, we’ve seen enough to be impressed by its potential. But, could this system, let’s call it the ‘Asensio quartet’, work in other types of games too? Or only these unimportant LaLiga matches?
2. Did Tchouaméni deserve a red card for the challenge on Chukwueze?
This was a potential opportunity for Tchouaméni to prove himself and return to his pre-World Cup form. Handed the start as a single pivot in an attacking formation against a good Villarreal midfield, this was far from the easiest challenge. And, he combined the good with the bad, such as failing to snuff out the pass to Chukwueze for the first Villarreal goal. Then, he risked a red card just before half-time for a reckless tackle on the Nigerian. Should VAR have intervened to send off the midfielder for that studs-up challenge? If we’ve been calling all season for Spanish referees to protect Vinícius from potential leg-breakers, then it would be hypocritical here to deny that Tchouaméni deserved to walk for that out-of-control tackle on one of the most exciting forwards in the league. But, as has been the case all season, Spanish referees are about as predictable as a game of dice. And, Tchouaméni was able to stay on until Ancelotti substituted him off in minute 71.
3. Did the half-time sub mean Alaba is starting instead of Rüdiger vs Chelsea?
Given that the priority right now is the Chelsea tie, we knew to expect some early substitutions in order to give rest to those who’ll likely start on Wednesday. That’s why it was probably a surprise to many that Alaba was the first substitution of the game, coming off at half-time for the rested Militão. Did that substitution mean that Alaba is going to start alongside Militão at centre-back in the Chelsea first leg? With the Austrian having played centrally and not at left-back in the three games since his return from injury, we should conclude that he’s either starting at centre-back or not starting at all Wednesday. And, this substitution – so long as it’s not because of injury – suggests that Ancelotti was preserving Alaba for that duel with the English side. Rüdiger played the 90 minutes, and might now be benched for the game against his former club.