Real Madrid dispatched Espanyol with relative ease in a 2-0 victory over the visitors in Saturday’s early kickoff.
Coach Pablo Machin set up Espanyol with three at the back, with the intention to crowd their opponents in the middle and this worked for most of the first half, and largely frustrated the hosts, with most of the Real Madrid players struggling to find their rhythm and creativity.
The notable exception was Vinicius Jr was lively on the left flank of attack and got the better of Victor Gomez and David Lopez on several occasions although his teammates failed to make the most of the chances he created.
Just when it seemed Espanyol had done their job and the first half would end scoreless, Raphael Varane was on hand to put the hosts ahead in the 37th minute to ensure Los Blancos went into the break ahead to calm an already agitated Bernabeu.
It was largely cruise control from Real Madrid in the second half and a piece of brilliance in the 77th minute from the ever-impressive Feddie Valverde set Karim Benzema up to make sure of the result.
This was exactly what Zinedine Zidane would have demanded from his wards, with the one sore point coming in the 83rd minute when stand-in left-back Ferland Mendy was sent off for a second booking.
His suspension coupled with Marcelo’s absence through injury means that the French manager would be without a recognized left-back for the trip to Mestalla to take on Valencia next week.
In this piece, we shall be highlighting four talking points from the LaLiga fixture at the Santiago Bernabeu.
1. Vinicius Jr impresses significantly
Big things were expected from Vinicius following his mega transfer from Flamengo and after initial struggles, he slowly became integrated and ended his first season as one of Real Madrid’s better players.
For all of his brilliance and direct play, a major criticism in his game has been his lack of composure when delivering the final ball and the arrival of Eden Hazard and blossoming of compatriot Rodrygo have limited his chances this season.
A spate of injuries to regular attackers including Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale handed Vinicius Jr the opportunity to start against Espanyol and it was one he grabbed with both hands.
The 19-year-old was started on the left of a front three alongside Rodrygo and Karim Benzema and he was easily the brightest spark in a match that the hosts struggled to dominate going forward.
He constantly skipped past Victor Gomez and set his teammates up on some occasions, with the best coming when Karim Benzema failed to convert a perfect centre in the 70th minute.
The Brazilian international completed the rather respectable total of 82.8% of his passes, while he had four shots (three on target), made four key passes, completed a game-high five dribbles and was generally more composed and assured in his decision making.
He was substituted for Brahim Diaz in the 86th minute and the applause given by the Bernabeu was indicative that they were impressed with his work and with Hazard set to be out until next year, Vinicius Jr would build on this display to become a key member of the first-team.
2. Karim Benzema continues with his fine run of form
A little over two years ago, many were questioning the importance of Karim Benzema to the Real Madrid squad after the Frenchman scored the rather meagre total of just five goals from 32 matches in LaLiga.
It was suggested that his time at the top was finished and that the club should find a new striker, with those calls getting louder when the main source of goals, Cristiano Ronaldo departed.
Those who opined that Benzema could not lead the line at the Bernabeu got the shock of their lives, as the 31-year-old turned out to be the club’s standout player in the immediate aftermath of Ronaldo’s sale, scoring 30 goals in all competitions to help Real Madrid save face in what was a disastrous campaign.
This season, the former Lyon man has continued from where he left off and after missing a gilt-edged chance midway through the second half, he made amends to put Real Madrid 2-0 up in the 77th minute.
The goal brought his tally this season to 11 goals and five assists from 14 matches, sending him top of the scorers’ chart and with Zidane still very distrustful of Luka Jovic, Benzema is still Real Madrid’s go-to man in front of goal.
3. Relegation threat looming large for Espanyol
Espanyol have spent the better part of their existence in the shadows of their more illustrious neighbours, Barcelona, but they are one of the more respectable teams outside the traditional clubs in Spain and have a decent enough history to boast of.
Last season, the club impressively finished in 7th place last season to secure European participation this season.
It was expected that Espanyol would build on that this term and at least secure continental football once again but so far this season, the reverse has been the case.
The club have won just two of their opening 10 LaLiga fixtures and it was this disastrous start to the campaign that led to the termination of David Gallego’s contract and his replacement with former Sevilla man Pablo Machin.
The change in the dugout has, however, not had the desired impact and Los Periquitos currently find themselves second-from-bottom and are yet to win any of their eight home games in the league this season.
This contrasts with their performance in Europe where they have secured qualification and sit top of their group but with the games coming in thick and fast, Espanyol have to start getting positive results quick if they are to preserve their top-flight status come next season.
4. Real Madrid showing champions quality
It is no hidden secret that Barcelona have been the standout team in LaLiga over the last decade and for all of their continental brilliance, Real Madrid have simply not been able to match Barcelona domestically.
The capital side have won just two LaLiga titles in the last decade which is rather poor for a club of their standing and it is for this reason that Zinedine Zidane stated that the club’s aim this season is to win the league title.
So far, they look on course to achieve their quest and they entered matchday 16 level on points with Barcelona.
Heading into the game with Espanyol, Zidane was without the services of no less than seven key first team members but the players on show did enough to get all three points.
It was far from a stellar display from Los Blancos but like they have shown in recent weeks, they have the grit and desire to grind out results even when things are not going their way which is the hallmark of champions.
Though they were far from their best, the win was all that matters and with Real Madrid moving temporarily top of the table, the onus is now on Barcelona to match their result.