Real Madrid got all three points from this midweek league match against Athletic Club, thanks to a 3-1 goal from Toni Kroos and a brace from Karim Benzema. There are several questions to discuss about this game, starting with one as to why it was taking place in the first place.
1. Why was this match on Matchday 19 taking place?
This is Copa del Rey midweek action for most teams in Spain, but for the four Supercopa teams – Real Madrid, Athletic Club, Barcelona and Real Sociedad – this has been a week of LaLiga action. The reason is that these four teams will face off at the Cartuja del Sevilla next month for the first trophy of 2021 and that these four teams are also exempt from playing in the first round of this season’s Copa del Rey, so the Spanish football authorities have decided that it would make sense to convince these teams to play league games with each other now. That way, they’ll have some breathing room to adapt to Supercopa matches when they need to do it in January. So, this is why Real Madrid and Athletic Club were playing this match of the nineteenth day, between the thirteenth and the fourteenth day, and that is why Barcelona will face Real Sociedad tomorrow night.
2. Would Zidane rotate for it?
Prior to this match, Zinedine Zidane was questioned about the rounds as he had used again and against the same players last week for the big straight matches against Sevilla, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Atlético Madrid. He was vague as usual in press conferences, so there was a feeling he could make some changes for this match against a weaker opponent. But no. The only lineup change that Zidane made was the forced change of the disqualified Casemiro for Fede Valverde. It worked because they are now four wins in a row, a good period of form that was achieved by selecting starters from a pool of just 14 players for these four games.
3. How would Fede Valverde do?
With Valverde leaving, it would have been interesting to see how he would go on his first start since returning from injury. The version of Valverde we saw in the post-lockdown stretch of the 2019/20 season was the worst version of Valverde we had seen since his promotion to the first team, but the version that started the 2020/21 campaign was among the best that we have seen of the Uruguayan. So what version would come up in this when she finds her feet after the injury? Well, after Raúl García’s red card and after the Athletic press died with it, we saw a very offensive Valverde. The average position of his touches during his time on the pitch was almost exactly the same as Benzema’s. Even though we know Benzema likes to go deep, he’s still saying something. This, then, was a bit of a strange game to judge Valverde on. Let’s see if he will restart against Eibar on Sunday.
1. What happened in that crazy 13 minute?
A lot has happened between 12:00 and 13:00. First, Valverde lost the ball near the half way line to allow Athletic Club to launch a counterattack, with Iñaki Williams breaking into the box and being pushed by Dani Carvajal. The Atletico players asked for a penalty, but they didn’t get it. That Carvajal challenge was with 12:18 on the clock. Then, at 12:46 pm, Raúl García hit Kroos for a second yellow card, almost frustrated. It was a good minute, with two big calls for Jesús Gil Manzano. He clearly got the second yellow right from Raúl García, but that foul shouldn’t have happened because I also think it should have been a penalty on Williams, as Carvajal really pushes him behind without attempting to play the ball. It was a crazy and decisive minute, then. Although Raúl García would certainly have gotten a second yellow card anyway …
2. What if Asensio wasn’t allowed to take that corner?
Let’s analyze a bit ‘the second goal of Real Madrid, Benzema’s go-ahead. Great header from Benzema and perfect cross from Carvajal, but Marco Asensio also played a role in a quick corner. It wasn’t the level of Trent Alexander-Arnold against Barca or anything like that, but the Spaniard did well to recognize how much space was in Carvajal and quickly play the ball to his teammate. The Spaniard’s speed was also crucial as Rodrygo was standing on the sideline waiting to be replaced. Had Asensio paused a little longer before taking that corner, Gil Manzano may have asked Zidane if he wanted to make the substitution on the spot and that could have given Athletic even more time to set themselves up. When the ball came out, after a corner from Kroos on the other side, I expected the change to be made on the spot. It wasn’t and within seconds Real Madrid were ahead. It’s a small detail, but perhaps a significant one.
3. Is this the season in which Benzema wins the Pichichi award?
At some points last season it looked like Benzema might finish at the top of the LaLiga goal table. In the end, Lionel Messi did it once again by finishing with 25 goals against Benzema’s 21. This year, though, Messi doesn’t look that much like Messi, while Benzema is still putting the ball into the open play net with consistency. The Frenchman is currently on track to score 20 goals in LaLiga this season. Obviously that’s less than he managed last year too, but Messi is on pace to score 18 league goals this season if he maintains his current scoring rate. Maybe this is the year.