The date was marked in red on my calendar. Huge expectations! Phil and I had planned the evening in such detail that we never considered the possibility of not having a real, competitive match to watch at the Santiago Bernabeu. However, that’s exactly what happened.
Both coaches had left their best defensive midfield options out of the starting line-up, and resorted to their more creative players, so it was bound to be a match with plenty of scoring chances. But while Zinedine Zidane can afford to leave Case out and use Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in the middle of the pitch against Real Sociedad in a warm-up match for his Champions League challenge, Eusebio Sacristan simply can’t be that irresponsible when facing Real Madrid at their own stadium. His team’s first half was a joke: between Illarra, Zurutuza, Canales and Xabi Prieto they combined for half a tackle in the first 45 minutes. Obviously, the brutal thrashing they suffered before halftime wasn’t only due to the absence of a decent ball-winner in midfield, as pretty much the whole line-up played as soft as a feather during the first 45 minutes, but indeed it would have helped to have at least one defensive-minded player on the pitch.
When Lucas Vazquez scored still inside the first minute, I have to admit I wasn’t too gracious. It took me another two minutes to stop laughing, and by that time Real Madrid had already hit Rulli’s post, showing that Real Sociedad’s defence wasn’t going to be a problem for the hosts. No fouls, no stamina, no hunger to get the ball; the visitors were an appalling sight especially as I was seated next to one of their most prestigious supporters.
In the ten minutes between the 27th and 37th Zidane’s team scored three times, but the most important thing was the way they moved around and passed the ball. At times they recovered some of the spark that has been missing this season. One could see Modric and Kroos pulling the strings at will and Marcelo having fun again by driving Real Sociedad’s right side nuts in an endless sequence of tricks with Asensio. We finally got to see the kid getting plenty of the ball and using it with intent. All in all, this first half at least gave Zidane a few reasons for optimism now that one of the most important matches of the season is just four days away. In all truth, they could have scored seven.
During halftime, Phil took the depressing performance of his team with surprising nonchalance. In his place, I’d have been swearing and screaming profanities non-stop, but he’s a Brit after all. Took a few pictures, texted his son & wife and by kick off of the second half he was already saying “Remontada!” (comeback).
They did better, indeed. The young Zubeldia came off the bench to give some stability in midfield, and Illarramendi finally felt free to move forward and get Prieto, Odriozola — very keen on taking on Marcelo in every situation — and Canales involved. They sorely missed the injured William Jose, the type of player that Real Madrid defenders hate to face, and even though they do score a lot (3rd highest scoring team in La Liga), without the Brazilian they lack a real menace upfront.
But Real Sociedad were starting to look like a decent team, and eventually Bautista scored. Real Madrid answered through Cristiano after Rulli parried a shot from Bale towards the Portuguese’s foot so that he could complete his hat trick. Now that we’re here, the very few times that I heard Phil swear had to do with Rulli and his questionable decision-making with the ball.
A few minutes before the final whistle, Illarra closed the score by finishing a great collective move, but did not celebrate his goal. I’d like to think he didn’t do it because he’s still a Madridista, but the fact that they were 5-1 down may have had something to do with it as well.
It was a pity that there was not enough competition between both teams, but it was a fun match to watch, as is usually the case when this season’s Real Sociedad are involved. Zidane will feel more optimistic than he did before the match, but the big question mark has to do with his line-up for Wednesday. Judging by what we saw on Saturday, Benzema should not even make the bench for PSG, but we’ve been here before and know well that the French manager believes in Benz a lot more than the Bernabeu does. And if anyone thinks that this wins somehow gives Real Madrid some edge over Neymar & Co., you only need to take a look at Real Sociedad’s two goals and imagine what the French squad could do to that type of defending.
After the final whistle, Phil and I went back to my neighbourhood, where we dined well and drank even better. New plans for LigaFever were discussed. Stay tuned, but in the meantime read Mr Ball’s superb account of the match.