Real Madrid extended their unbeaten streak with a hard-fought away win at the Cornella-El Prat, maintaining their brilliant early-season form and racking up their 16th consecutive league win in the process – leveling the emphatic record set by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side in the 2010/2011 season. A midweek victory against Villarreal at the Santiago Bernabéu will see Zinedine Zidane enter the history books as a result, and continue his incredible start to life as a manager.
With the team’s two most high-profile stars – Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo – ruled out of the game, Zidane opted for a make-shift forward line consisting of Marco Asensio, Karim Benzema, and Lucas Vazquez. There were also changes in midfield as Modric and Casemiro were partnered by James Rodriguez, who was rewarded for his fantastic performance in the Champions League with a starting spot.
After a shaky-start, things seemingly went from bad to worse for Real as Casemiro collided with an Espanyol player in the 13th minute and had to be taken off due to a hamstring problem shortly after. The introduction of Toni Kroos, however, allowed the midfield to control more of the ball against their aggressive-minded opposition as the shape of the team had to be adjusted to accommodate the German maestro.
Zidane’s men continued to grow into the game as the first-half progressed, and finally made headway in front of goal just before the half-time whistle as James Rodriguez rifled in a low strike from 30 yards after successfully riding two challenges to create space. The Colombian’s perfect placement saw the ball barely sneak in at Diego Lopez’s left-hand post, mere inches away from the reach of his full-stretch dive. This allowed Madrid to head into the interval in the driving seat despite an underwhelming 45 minutes, and was likely to encourage Espanyol to play a more adventurous game after the break.
As expected, the game opened up more and more in the second-half with both sides threatening – particularly in the final half an hour. Los Merengues managed to avoid a potential equaliser and doubled their lead in the 70th minute as Benzema turned home Lucas Vazquez’s cross after a superb flowing move. Espanyol pushed forward with all the energy they had left after Madrid’s second, but it was to no avail as the score-line remained unchanged till the final whistle.
It proved to be a tough encounter for Zidane and his players, but they held on to secure a crucial away victory on their road to the league title – the kind of win that could potentially define their season at the death. The players’ ability to get the job done in the absence of star names is also likely to please their manager, as Zizou will be expecting each member of his squad to contribute to the club’s quest for silverware – and if they continue in this fashion, there’s every chance that Cibeles will be up in lights once again.