Barcelona’s emergency striker Martin Braithwaite make an immediate impact on Sunday, just as a lack of cutting edge saw Real Madrid lose the LaLiga lead heading into the most important week of their season.
€20million out of the blue signing Braithwaite came off the bench at the Camp Nou on Saturday afternoon to help Barca ease to a 5-0 win over Eibar, with blaugrana talisman Lionel Messi grabbing four goals.
Then Madrid dominated possession and territory at Levante later on Saturday evening, only for their bluntness in attack to be punished by a thumping late winner from the home side’s Jose Luis Morales.
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It was Madrid’s first La Liga defeat since a similar 0-1 at RCD Mallorca back in October, but followed two more points dropped last weekend at home to Celta Vigo. It means that Quique Setien’s Barca will kick off next Sunday evening’s Clasico at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu as La Liga leaders.
And that Madrid also go into Wednesday’s Champions League last 16 first leg at home to Manchester City having hit a bad patch of form at just the worst time.
“We know we are playing for everything this week, and we must be ready,” Zidane said at the post game news conference. “We’ve had good moments this season. Now is a bad moment, the last two games were very negative results for us. But we must keep our heads up, come out of this with energy and optimism, and start winning again.”
The biggest story of Saturday’s game at Levante’s Ciutat de Valencia stadium revolved around Eden Hazard – who was making a second start since three months out injured, and from the off looked sharp and eager to get involved and help his team.
Hazard had a great opportunity to open the scoring early in the second half, when played clear over the top by Marcelo. But the former Chelsea player’s lack of recent action was evident as he failed to properly control the ball, then scuffed a weak shot straight at Levante goalkeeper Aitor Fernandez.
Worse was soon to come as Hazard began limping after what initially seemed an innocuous challenge with Levante right-back Jorge Miramon. The Belgium international clearly tried to run off the problem, but soon had to accept he could not continue. There followed a short exchange of words with Zidane, before he glumly sat on the bench with ice around the same right ankle where he had suffered a cracked bone against Paris Saint-Germain back in November.
Sunday brought confirmation from Madrid that Hazard had another “fracture to his right distal fibula”, which is expected to keep him out until mid-April at the earliest. This means he will now miss more games through injury during his first season at Madrid than during his entire seven years as a Chelsea player.
Last summer’s big galactico signing has had a horror-show first season at the Bernabeu. After turning up almost a stone overweight for pre-season, Hazard has completed 90 minutes just five times across La Liga and the Champions League, and scored just one goal in 1,124 minutes of action.
Hazard’s clear disappointment at a fourth injury of the season seemed to affect his teammates at Levante on Saturday too. The home side had three half chances soon after he left the action, and were also knocked out of their attacking rhythm. It was not a huge surprise when a long clearance forward caught out their defence, and charismatic winger Morales sprinted clear to smash the bouncing ball past Thibaut Courtois at his near post.
There were eleven minutes left but Madrid could not find a convincing comeback attempt. For a second week in a row Sergio Ramos was pressed into action in an emergency centre-forward role in open play. The defender’s header when off balance in the 94th minute was easily saved. That took Madrid to 19 efforts at goal through the game, seven on target, but Levante keeper Aitor had zero difficult saves to make.
Zidane’s side did play some really neat football at times, especially in the first half, and pushed Levante right back into their box. With Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Isco, Marcelo and Karim Benzema all together in the XI, keeping possession and moving the opposition around is not a problem.
They rarely got in behind Levante’s back four however, or found any space in the opposition box. Even when Hazard was buzzing around he mostly played narrowly and looked for short one-twos with Benzema, which Levante’s defenders were happy enough to watch happening in front of them.
“We found it difficult to score tonight,” Zidane admitted afterwards. “Our first half was very good, we attacked a lot, played in their half, created chances, but were just missing the goal, which is the most important. Then they attack once and score. That is football, but we did not deserve that today. But we must look at what we have done in these last two games, and not repeat it in the next game.”
It was though in keeping with most of Madrid’s recent performances, when Zidane has preferred to play Isco as an extra midfielder and leave out wingers Vinicius Junior and Gareth Bale. The effect is almost the opposite of how the team generally played over the last decade, all the way back through Zidane’s first term in charge, Carlo Ancelotti’s reign, to Jose Mourinho’s three years at the Bernabeu. When Ronaldo and Bale were at their peak, Los Blancos were generally happy enough to let the other team have the ball, come up the pitch, and then smash them when space opened up.
A particularly unfortunate statistic doing the rounds on Saturday night was that Barca have now scored 42 more goals than Madrid in La Liga since Ronaldo left in summer 2018. And the now Juventus player scoring in a 2-1 victory at SPAL means he has exactly 42 goals in Serie A in that time.
Freeing Ronaldo’s old number seven for Hazard last summer was supposed to be symbolic, but instead it now just shows how badly the Portuguese’s goals have been missed. Benzema is top scorer with 13 in all competitions, having started the season in excellent form, but with just one in LaLiga since mid-December. It was a lot for everyone to think about Saturday evening on a journey back to Madrid made even gloomier by fog closing the airport leading to a four-hour coach trip home.
Bale had not travelled after missing training with gastroenteritis last week. He will be on the bench for Wednesday’s first leg against City, unless Zidane decides that the motivation of facing Premier League rivals will pull a performance out of the Welshman.
Meanwhile Messi has again shown he can almost single-handedly pull Barca through games, no matter how turbulent the mood in the Camp Nou dressingroom or boardroom. His ‘poker’ four goal haul ended a surreal run of four La Liga games without a goal, although during that time he had assisted six of the team’s seven goals.
The size of Saturday’s victory will be a boost for Setien, who still looks as reliant on Messi individual magic as any of his predecessors as Barca coach.
Madrid look in need of an urgent attacking boost themselves. Their goalscoring issues were clear even before Hazard’s latest injury on Saturday. City are coming to the Bernabeu at a good time.