Mestalla, Valencia – “We deserved the victory. We deserved a game like that.” Zinedine Zidane – as cool and calm as he has been throughout his tenure as Real Madrid – sat at the long white table in the press room and admitted that he’ll “never change.” The afternoon had seen his side win a consecutive La Liga match for the first time since October. The fact that it came at Mestalla, where los Blancos hadn’t won since 2013/14, was even better. It was a match that Real Madrid had to win following their midweek Copa del Rey exit at the hands of Leganes. Although it doesn’t help them much in the league and it certainly doesn’t compensate for not being in the semi-finals of the cup, it does increase confidence and moral for that Champions League clash against PSG that many see as do or die.
Real’s afternoon began with their bus being pelted with missiles upon arrival at the stadium – an act of intimidation from the vociferous home supporters. But only a few hours later the visitors left under the pleasant but sinking Valencian sun with three points in their pocket and their heads held high. The final scoreline might have been a bit harsh on the home side, as for 80 minutes Los Che went toe-to-toe with Real in what was an intense, thrilling display of football.
For the first time in 280 days, Zidane was able to slot Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, and Cristiano Ronaldo into his attacking three. And it was almost a dream start for Real when an early collision between Valencia goalkeeper Neto and Ezequiel Garay set up Bale with a golden opportunity to strike, but Neto recovered and made the save. The home crowd – as usual – were up for the occasion, and the afternoon kick-off time added to the hot and fiery spectacle.
Just as Valencia were beginning to settle into the game, a quick lethal Real counter led to Martin Montoya chasing back and hauling down Ronaldo in the penalty area. Referee senor Estrada Fernandez had no hesitancy in pointing to the spot. Ronaldo stepped up and sent Neto the wrong way. Valencia responded well and should have equalised just after the half-hour mark when Garay teed up Geoffrey Kondogbia inside the six-yard box. However, the Frenchman – who has been an impressive addition to the Valencian midfield – failed to sort his feet out and bobbled a shot hopelessly into the arms of Keylor Navas.
The hosts were left to rue their missed chances as Real extended their lead towards the end of the half through another penalty kick. Another Montoya foul, this time on Benzema, resulted in another spot-kick scored by Ronaldo. Valencia sill worked hard and had a chance to sneak a goal just before half-time when Santi Mina managed to produce a cross from the left but Rodrigo failed to convert.
Real sought to control the second half and not surrender their two-goal lead but Los Che’s spirit was still strong and they eventually made their breakthrough as Santi Mina ghosted beyond Nacho to head the ball beyond Navas from close-range following Dani Parejo’s pinpoint out-swinging corner. The pressure on the Real goal continued as Navas was forced into a wonderful stop to deny Parejo, flinging out a trailing leg to deny a goalbound effort from the Valencia captain.
With less than 10 minutes left to play the match was still in the balance – a single goal separated the sides. Marcelino on the touchline urged his side to be cautious – ‘don’t become too open’ was the gesture he made with his hands – whilst those in the crowd demanded they go forward. A goal did arrive but it was for Real – Marcelo and substitute Marco Asensio combined on the left wing before the Brazilian found his way into the area and fired a low strike beyond fellow Brazilian Neto at his near post. The atmosphere dropped. The game had gone. Some fans ventured for the exits. Those who did missed another goal … another Madrid goal. With Valencia’s players looking exhausted and out of ideas, Toni Kroos received the ball from a delightful flick by Mateo Kovacic and struck a trademark goal from the edge of the penalty area.
The heralded return of the BBC had brought about a needed response to the growing questions surrounding Real’s performances and their manager’s position. Ronaldo looked as sharp and as effective as he has done all season – peaking possibly at just the right time. After a sublime performance last week, Bale once again demonstrated his case for being Real’s future star attacker. Valencia’s current star player – Goncalo Guedes – looked out of sorts throughout his 45-minute cameo before a thigh injury forced him off at half-time. With trips to Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in the coming week for Marcelino’s men, their season could take a turn for the worse in both league and cup.
Los Otros Puntos
- Javi Calleja left the Estadio de la Ceramica late on Saturday evening, a group of Villarreal fans had stayed behind, determined to send him on his way home with a cheer. Since being appointed manager in the summer, his side haven’t been spectacular in terms of performances but they have certainly been effective. Their victory over Real Sociedad was their fourth win in five matches including victories away at Real Madrid and Valencia, and with an intriguing Europa League tie against Lyon on the horizon, there is certainly plenty of optimism in Castellon. Victor Ruiz gave Villarreal the lead on Saturday before Pablo Fornals and Carlos Bacca made it 3-0 by the 20th minute. Diego Llorente got a goal back for la Real but Samu Castillejo regained the hosts’ advantage. Willian Jose brought the visitors to within two goals again just before the hour mark but it stayed 4-2 as Villarreal moved to within three points of Valencia in 3rd.
- There were nine maybe ten players in white surrounding one man in yellow. 26-year-old referee Javier Alberola had just blown his whistle signalling the end of the match and then suddenly he was bombarded with protests. A matter of seconds earlier he had allowed a Getafe equaliser to stand despite Sevilla goalkeeper Sergio Rico being charged off the ball before Angel Rodriguez headed home. Nolito and Rico himself were booked for their dissent – but they had a case. ‘Montella’s Sevillan renaissance comes to a halt,’ ran Marca on Monday morning.
- The main talking point in Bilbao before Friday’s derby match between Athletic Bilbao and Eibar was Aymeric Laporte’s omission from the team. The main talking after the game was also Laporte such was the disappointing nature of the match. The evergreen Aritz Aduriz put Athletic in front when he headed in an Inaki Williams’ cross in the second-half but Kike responded for Eibar in the 73rd minute.
- The attacking triumvirate of Luis Suarez, Leo Messi, and Philippe Coutinho started for Barcelona for the first time – two of them, Suarez and Messi, scored to rescue the home side from a shock defeat to Alaves. The team that have spent much of the season in the bottom three took the lead and kept it for 50 minutes before Barcelona fought back to win their 18th league match of the season and remain unbeaten.
- It was a hatrick of sorts for Espanyol’s Mario Hermoso, apart from two of them were scored for Leganes. It’s a brilliant time to be a Leganes fan – following on from their midweek Copa del Rey triumph, they saw off an underwhelming Espanyol side with a large helping hand from Hermoso, and can look forward to the home leg of their semi-final against Sevilla on Wednesday.
- It was a close escape for Levante away at Deportivo La Coruna in a relegation six-pointer – talk about leaving it late.
Athletic Bilbao 1–1 Eibar
Deportivo 2–2 Levante
Valencia 1–4 Real Madrid
Malaga 0–0 Girona
Villarreal 4–2 Real Sociedad
Leganes 3–2 Espanyol
Atletico Madrid 3–0 Las Palmas
Sevilla 1–1 Getafe
Barcelona 2–1 Alaves
Celta Vigo – Real Betis to be played on Monday
El Jugador de la Semana: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)
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