After a rather humiliating 4-1 defeat to Valencia, Zinedine Zidane helplessly watched on as the majority of his squad jetted off to various locations around the world.
The international break had come at the worst possible time. Instead of being able to right the embarrassing wrongs from the Valencia defeat, his Real Madrid players instead departed for a needless – and frankly daft, given there is a global pandemic going on – international break.
With that finally out the way, Zidane’s charges were quickly on the move once more as Los Blancos travelled to Villarreal. There was, however, a slight injury crisis to contend with.
Alvaro Odriozola, Sergio Ramos, Eder Militao, Casemiro, Fede Valverde, Luka Jovic and Karim Benzema were all unable to feature, the latter injuring himself in training towards the back end of the week.
The core spine of his team being ruled out wasn’t what Zidane needed, but it did open the door for a number of fringe players to step up and deliver.
Unfortunately for Zizou, they failed to take their chance as Los Blancos were forced to cling on for a much needed point. But the reality is, they can perhaps consider themselves fortunate not to have slumped to another defeat.
Nacho came in at centre-back to partner Raphael Varane – who played through a slight injury he picked up on international duty – while Martin Odegaard and Mariano Diaz also returned to the starting lineup. Lucas Vazquez also moved further up the pitch to his more natural right-wing position.
The away side were actually the dominant force in the first half, taking the lead after just two minutes through the bright Mariano. Passing crisply and finding areas of space to work in, Real were simply too good for Villarreal when it came to ball retention. But apart from Mariano’s header, Real rarely looked like troubling Sergio Asenjo in goal.
Nonetheless, Zidane will have been pleased with his side’s overall display in the first 45. But as soon as Villarreal came out of their shell and began to break the lines with some incisive passing, the tide turned and Madrid struggled to get a foothold in the second period.
As the match progressed, Real were crying out for a leader, someone to take control of the game and halt the momentum the hosts were building up. But there was no player on the pitch who ever looked capable of stepping up in the absence of Sergio Ramos and Casemiro.
Equally, as has been seen time and time again, Benzema has often popped up to rescue his side even when they haven’t been at their free-flowing, menacing best. And even though Mariano’s performance couldn’t really be faulted, Benzema’s presence up front and ability to change the game in the blink of an eye was sorely missed.
Let’s not be mistaken, Real came up against a very strong Villarreal side. But the importance of Ramos, Casemiro and Benzema was once again made abundantly clear on Saturday – not simply because of their obvious talent, but in times when their leadership skills were desperately needed.
Zidane must look to address this immediately, as Villarreal shouldn’t have been allowed to get back into a game they were controlling.