Real Madrid took a step closer to sealing the LALIGA title as they beat their closest title rivals Girona at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu on Saturday evening with a thumping 4-0 victory. An opening strike from Vinícius Júnior, on only six minutes, and then a Jude Bellingham brace and a fourth from Rodrygo Goes secured the win.
1. How would a defence without any defenders get on?
When it was confirmed that Antonio Rüdiger would not be available early on Saturday morning, it became clear that Real Madrid would be fielding a defence which would likely feature only one defender in their natural position. That man was left-back Ferland Mendy, with Lucas Vázquez having spent some time as a right-back so could be accepted. Dani Carvajal and Aurelién Tchouameni would be the two makeshift central defenders, with Carvajal playing on the left of the central pairing. Coming up against the joint-leading goalscorer in LALIGA in Artem Dovbyk, it was a daunting proposition, but Los Blancos handled it well. Tchouameni stuck with the Ukrainian to dominate in the air, while Carvajal was attentive to his runs and the deep surges of Portu through the middle. In particular though, it was Lucas and Mendy out wide who shut down Girona’s wide play and refused them space to create danger. While the individuals may not be at their most comfortable in each position, they looked like a solid unit when playing together.
2. Would Girona miss the three key men serving suspension?
Much was made in the build-up regarding the absence of three key men for Girona; coach Míchel Sánchez, midfielder Yangel Herrera and defender Daley Blind. All three were serving suspensions picked up in their frustrating 0-0 draw against Real Sociedad last weekend, and were forced to watch from the stands. Blind was replaced with a straight swap seeing Juanpe come in, but Herrera’s absence enforced a rejig in midfield with Iván Martín dropping deeper and Portu coming into a more offensive role. Given the nature of the early goal which threw a spanner into the works for Girona, perhaps the biggest absence was Míchel’s presence on the touchline. Girona had plenty of possession but were unable to handle the pace with which Real Madrid would launch into the counter-attack, opening up gaps both in midfield and defence to run riot in the opposing half with the runs of Jude Bellingham and Eduardo Camavinga, and Girona were too slow to react to stop those runs posing a major threat.
3. How important will this result prove to be for the title race?
Carlo Ancelotti was adamant pre-match that this result would not decide the title race, but it did recognise that it would give “an advantage” to whichever team took the three points. Real Madrid certainly have that now, and with a five-point gap, they will feel confident that they can see out this lead to secure the LALIGA title. They do have the added pressure of the Champions League and a defensive injury crisis, but they only have three of the top six left to play, compared to Girona who face four of them. Additionally, Real Madrid’s three games against top six opposition are all at the Bernabéu, while Girona have two games at Montilivi and two on the road. There is also the mental factor of quite how convincing the win was for Real Madrid. Girona have taken the game to many of their opponents at the top end of the table this season, and they did attempt to here, but Real Madrid’s quality was just too much for Girona to be able to compete with. Girona’s resignation even before the third and fourth goals reflected that. The odds are now firmly in Real Madrid’s favour.
1. Just how influential is Vinícius Júnior?
Having missed Vinícius Júnior against Atlético Madrid, there were plenty of Madridistas feeling concerned about how the team would convert chances after wasting so many against Atlético on Sunday night. Less than a week later, and with the Brazilian recovered from a neck problem, he showed everyone what they’d been missing. It took him only six minutes to curl in a fine effort from outside the box and settle the nerves of a game that was billed as a title decider but ended up being more of a routine win. Even after his goal, he then provided the assists for both of Jude Bellingham’s goals, with the second being an incredible piece of individual skill to burst down the left and beat two men before putting it on a plate for his team-mate to finish. The headlines might be about Bellingham’s two goals, but the quieter star of the show was Vinícius Júnior.
2. Where do Real Madrid get the best out of Jude Bellingham?
The England international was back in the number 10 role as the most offensive midfielder in the set-up, operating slightly behind Vinícius Júnior and Rodrygo Goes in a more central role, allowing them to pull wide. Bellingham produced one of his most eye-catching performances with his involvement in a Real Madrid shirt. He scored two goals, one running from deep to round Paulo Gazzaniga with great technical skill, and the other being in the right pace at the right time to tap in after superb work from Vini out wide. In recent weeks we’ve seen Bellingham play in a deeper role with more defensive responsibilities, and his goalscoring has been limited, though he has still been hugely influential on play, but this showed just how dangerous he is in front of goal again. Forced off on 56 minutes following a nasty stamp on his foot by Barcelona loanee Pablo Torre, the bigger concern will not be where to play him, but how bad that injury could be.
3. How much of the credit for this game is owed to Carlo Ancelotti?
Neutrals watching this game could have been forgiven for not realising the importance of the tie or the close standing in the table between these two teams. Once again, Carlo Ancelotti made the incredibly difficult look easy with how his team were set up and exploited Girona’s weaknesses without exposing their own. It’s worth remembering that Girona were facing a back four with only one playing in their preferred position and they failed to record a shot on target. That, in addition to how Real Madrid timed their breaks and allowed Girona to be on the ball, showed a smart tactical approach that Míchel and his staff were unable to compensate for. Girona’s high line left them exposed but Ancelotti knew that his team would have to sit deep in order to expose that, and took the risk of doing so only to see it pay off. Well played, Carletto.