Real Madrid got the three points in this league match in the middle of the week against Athletic Club, thanks to a 3-1 victory, with a shot by Toni Kroos and an arm by Karim Benzema. There are several questions to discuss in this game, starting with one about why it took place in the first place.
1. Why did this match take place on the 19th?
This is half a week of Copa del Rey 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 play in Sevilla at La Cartuja next month for the first trophy of 2021 and that these four teams are also exempt from playing in the first round of the Copa del Rey this season, so the Spanish authorities football decided that it would make sense for these teams to play league games with each other now. That way, they will have some breathing space to fit into the Supercopa programs when they do so in January. So this is why Real Madrid and Athletic Club have been playing this match since the 19th on the 19th, between the 13th and 14th matches, and that is why Barcelona will face Real Sociedad in a similar way tomorrow night.
2. Would Zidane rotate for it?
Prior to this game, Zinedine Zidane was asked about the rotations, as he used the same players again and again last week for the huge consecutive games against Sevilla, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Atlético Madrid. It was as vague as usual in the press conferences, so it felt like it could make some changes for this match against a weaker opponent. But no. The only change in the group that Zidane made was the forced change of Casemiro suspended for Fede Valverde. It worked because there are now four wins in a row, a good form race that was achieved by selecting the starters from a group of only 14 players for these four matches.
3. How would Fede Valverde do it?
With Valverde starting, it will be interesting to see how he handles his first start since returning from injury. The version of Valverde that I saw in the post-block period of the 2019/20 season was the worst version of Valverde that I had seen since being promoted to the first team, but the version that started the 2020/21 campaign was among the best i’ve seen about uruguayan. So what version would appear in this, while he finds his feet again after the injury? Well, after Raúl García’s red card and after the Athletic press died with him, I saw a very attacking Valverde. The average position of his touches during his time on the field was almost exactly the same as that of Benzema. Even though we know that Benzema likes to fall deep, that says something else. Back then, it was a weird little game that I judged Valverde. Let’s see if he starts again on Sunday against Eibar.
1. What happened in that crazy minute 13?
Between 12:00 and 13:00, a lot happened. First, Valverde lost the ball close to the midfield to allow Athletic Club to launch a counterattack, with Iñaki Williams bursting into the box and being pushed by Dani Carvajal. Athletic’s players demanded a penalty, but failed. That Carvajal challenge was 12:18 on the clock. Then, at 12:46, Raúl García attacked Kroos for a second yellow, almost frustrated. It was quite a minute, with two big calls for Jesús Gil Manzano. He clearly got Raúl García’s second right yellow, but that foul shouldn’t have happened because I also think it should have been a penalty for Williams, as Carvajal even pushes him back, without any attempt to play the ball. Then it was a crazy and decisive minute. Although Raúl García would surely have obtained a second yellow in a short time anyway …
2. What if Asensio weren’t allowed to take that corner?
Let’s take a look at Real Madrid’s second goal, the Benzema header. It was an excellent header from Benzema and a perfect centimeter cross from Carvajal, but Marco Asensio also played a quick role in the corner. It wasn’t Trent Alexander-Arnold vs Barça or anything like that, but the Spaniard did well to notice how much space Carvajal had and to play the ball to his teammate quickly. The Spaniard’s speed was also vital, as Rodrygo sat on the waiting line and waited to be replaced. If Asensio had stopped a little longer before taking that corner, Gil Manzano could have asked Zidane if he wanted to make the replacement there and then that could have given Athletic even more time to settle down. When the ball went out, after a Kroos corner on the other side, I expected the change to be made there and then. It wasn’t and in a few seconds Real Madrid was ahead. It’s a small detail, but maybe a significant one.
3. Is this the season when Benzema wins the Pichichi award?
At some point last season, it seemed that Benzema could reach first place in LaLiga’s goal standings. In the end, Lionel Messi did it again, as he finished with 25 goals compared to 21. Benzema. This year, however, Messi does not look so much like Messi, while Benzema continues to put the ball in the net from the open game consistently. The Frenchman is currently on track to score 20 LaLiga goals this season. That is obviously less than he managed even last year, but Messi is on track to score 18 league goals this season, if he maintains his current score. Maybe this is the year.