Real Madrid turned up the heat with a 3-0 hammering of eighth-placed Valencia in the second round of fixtures since LaLiga Santander’s return.
Los Blancos put the pressure right back on Barcelona as they look to cut down the two-point deficit between themselves and the Catalans.
Zinedine Zidane’s men put a relatively weak first half behind them and looked to gain control right from the first minute of the second half. With more power and precision, they pegged Valencia into their half and found goals of spectacular quality from Karim Benzema and a returning Marco Asensio.
Real Madrid’s €100m star Eden Hazard was involved heavily in the build-up to the first goal and looked to continue his return to form. Toni Kroos kept things ticking in midfield, while the ever-reliable Casemiro made his presence felt with some crunching tackles — one of which led to a goal.
Despite the apparent lack of control in the first half, Real Madrid resumed proceedings at the top end of the table. Valencia, on the other hand, have continued to look lacklustre in their unfruitful hunt for European places.
Here, we take a look at the five major talking points from the game at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano.
1. Record-breaking Benzema chasing Messi in La Liga
Benzema has been pivotal for Real Madrid for a decade now, more so since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure. Benzema firmly took charge of Los Blancos’ attack, who has scored 16 La Liga goals at Zidane’s side this season and only 5 goals behind Messi.
Despite not grabbing a goal against Eibar, Benzema was central to everything Real Madrid did in that game. Against Valencia, though, the 32-year-old took it to a whole new level. His combination play with Hazard for the first goal was followed up by a sumptuous finish into the bottom left corner. It was a landmark goal in an already illustrious career as he joined Ferenc Puskás as Real Madrid’s fifth all-time highest scorer.
Benzema needed just 25 minutes to break the record with an absolutely sizzling finish for his second of the night. Kroos led Real Madrid’s charge and spread the ball to Asensio who then laid it off for the Frenchman. After one outrageous touch with his right to take Hugo Guillamón out of the equation, Benzema smoked the ball into the roof of the net. The 32-year-old broke Puskás’ longstanding record in style and sealed the three points with Real Madrid’s third goal.
He continued to float around in Real Madrid’s attacking third completed more dribbles (five) than any other player on the pitch. All in all, it was simply a scintillating display from the Frenchman and a great result for Real Madrid.
2. Hazard’s return still a work in progress
Eden Hazard has endured a nightmare debut season in the Spanish capital so far. Injuries have gotten the better of the 29-year-old during his short time at Real Madrid and has missed a whopping 24 games this year. The lockdown was a blessing in disguise for him as he managed to recover in time to complete the season.
The Belgian looked a lot sharper against Valencia than he did against Eibar. He sparked Real Madrid to life with a run to take on a couple of Valencia defenders, played a quick one-two with Luka Modrić and released Benzema with a deft touch. The Frenchman slotted it into the corner of the away goal after a superb bit of link-up play by Hazard.
He completed four key passes, most for any player on the pitch and matched only by Benzema. His three shots on goal were the most as well alongside Kroos, and completed three dribbles on the nigh with 77 touches. Numbers aside, it is the elegance of his touches and quick bursts that make him so dangerous, and he continues to regain them with every passing game.
That being said, Hazard looked drained of energy towards the latter parts of the game and still is quite far off the best version of himself. The Belgian’s foot-race against Elaquim Mangala was evidence of this. He was subbed off for Vinicius Jr for the final ten minutes. Real Madrid would hope for him to keep up this pace and regain his 2018/29 levels of match-fitness as early as possible.
3. Dominant Valencia, susceptible Madrid in the first half
It was a strange first-half for the Real Madrid faithful at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stéfano. While Real Madrid dominated in terms of possession, shots, passes, and every other notable metric, Valencia look comfortable. To be specific, they looked far more comfortable than a side playing away to the Spanish giants generally appear.
A case could be made to say they even deserved to be ahead after an adventurous half. And for a few misleading moments, they actually did.
In the 24th minute of the fixture, Carlos Soler caught Sergio Ramos off-guard and played a deceiving pass to Rodrigo, who slotted it past Thibaut Courtois. However, upon VAR’s intervention, the goal was ruled out after Maxi Gómez — in an offside position — was judged to be the last player to have touched the ball.
Much to the dismay of Valencia, the scoreline stayed at 0-0. Although Los Ché looked comfortable, they couldn’t capitalise and eventually paid the price.
Their second-half capitulation, including a rather harsh straight red card for Lee Kang-In, ultimately cost them the game. Valencia have a herculean task on their hands to climb higher up the table as they host Osasuna come Sunday.
4. Failed Valverde experiment on the right
There was a possibility of Zidane deploying a diamond at the start of the game due to four midfielders on the pitch, but that wasn’t the case. Modrić, Kroos and Casemiro played in their customary areas while it was Fede Valverde who was tasked with playing on the right. However, it wasn’t exactly a night to remember for the Uruguayan.
He looked isolated on the right-hand side of Real Madrid’s midfield for most parts of his 73-minute stay on the pitch. He offered little attacking presence, width, or a goal threat from that area of the pitch. The 21-year-old registered 50 touches, lower than any of Real Madrid’s outfield players bar Raphaël Varane and continuously found himself disjointed from the rest of the Real Madrid players.
In truth would’ve been difficult to expect the same from the Uruguayan as he is traditionally more of a central player. If anything, the fact that Valverde was deployed there over other well-suited players highlights Zidane’s lack of belief in the options at his disposal.
It would be interesting to see if Real Madrid address Zidane’s concern in the transfer market, or if the Frenchman decides to go with one of Vinicius, Rodrygo, or Gareth Bale. Or perhaps even the returning Marco Asensio (more on him later).
5. Marco Asensio’s dream Real Madrid return
It had been 330 days since Marco Asensio last took to the pitch with Real Madrid when he ruptured his ACL in a friendly against Bayern Munich. The 24-year-old was unfortunately ruled out for the entirety of the season due to the horrific injury he sustained in June 2019.
However, much like Hazard, the lockdown period and extended LaLiga schedule gave Asensio hope of returning to action in the 2019/20 campaign. He was introduced at the expense of Valverde in the 73rd minute after pat on the head from his beloved manager on the sidelines.
It did not take him more than a minute (literally) to make an impact for Los Blancos since he stepped onto the pitch. After some tidy work from Ferland Mendy to win the ball back, beat his man and launch a fizzed cross into the crowded box, the Spaniard took centre-stage. Asensio smashed the ball on the volley into Jasper Cilessen’s net with his very first touch of the ball in 330 days.
If that wasn’t enough of a glorious comeback story in itself, there was more to come. Asensio received a raking ball from Kroos to set Benzema up in a dangerous position, who scored with aplomb netting Real Madrid’s third of the night. The Spaniard was awarded the Man of the Match award for his stunning cameo.
It was almost as if Zidane had that beaming smile on his face because he knew something spectacular was about to unfold…