The timing couldn’t have been more apt. Real Madrid, the dominant force on the Spanish football scene and symbol of Spanish centralism, coming to play newly-promoted upstarts Girona in a hotbed of Catalan separatism just two days after the region had declared independence from Spain.
The talk in the build up to Sunday’s match had largely focussed on how the parlous political situation in Catalonia would impact on the match, and whether or not playing the game at a time of such heightened political tension would pose a security risk.
Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane was keen to keep his players’ minds on footballing matters, and seemed unconcerned about any potential security threat. He was right to be unperturbed, as there was no crowd trouble; there was some pro-independence chanting from the Girona fans and waving of Spanish flags from the Madrid fans, but nothing more sinister than that on either side.
The only trouble for Zidane’s side came on the pitch. They took an early lead when Isco tapped in the rebound after Cristiano Ronaldo’s shot was saved, but Girona showed how dangerous they could be by hitting the post either side of Isco’s goal, once from Pablo Maffeo’s curling shot, and once from Portu’s looping header.
Girona were unlucky to be behind at half time, and two goals in quick succession after the restart from former Middlesbrough striker Cristhian Stuani and the superb Portu gave them a deserved lead.
The had matched their celebrated visitors all over the pitch, with wing-backs Maffeo and Aday Benítez posing a particular threat, and the tireless Pere Pons dominating in central midfield.
Madrid, on the other hand, were shambolic. Wing-backs Marcelo and Achraf were wasteful in attack and exposed in defence, Ronaldo and Karim Benzema offered little attacking threat and Luka Modrić wasn’t able to gain a foothold in the game. Only the continually excellent Isco emerged from the match with any credit.
While Girona manager Pablo Machín had his side well organised and highly disciplined, Real Madrid were a mess. Zidane reacted to going behind by sacrificing both his ineffective wing-backs in a double substitution, throwing Marco Asensio and Lucas Vázquez on in hope of turning the deficit around.
But these changes left them short at the back and vulnerable to the counter attack, and simply flooded the attack without any real purpose or structure. It seemed desperate from Zidane, almost as though he had no plan other than to throw on his most attacking substitutes in the hope that something would stick.
While last season, he could summon seasoned game-changers such as Álvaro Morata or James Rodríguez from the bench if needed, Zidane now has to rely on the inexperienced Asensio and the limited Vázquez. This lack of depth could come back to haunt him, particularly with Gareth Bale’s injury and Ronaldo and Benzema struggling for goals.
While Madrid were majestic last season as they surged to the title, they did ride their luck at times, and often had to rely on late winners from Morata or Sergio Ramos to secure the three points. If they were behind going into the final minutes of the match last season, you still felt they would turn it around.
This power seems to have deserted them this season. Their best chance of an equaliser at the death came when Toni Kroos’s long free-kick into the box found Ronaldo unmarked, but the Portuguese forward’s tame header into the arms of Girona keeper Bono epitomised his struggles in the league this season.
Girona held on to record a famous victory in what was the first ever competitive meeting between the two clubs, and they fully deserved their win. This is perhaps the greatest moment in the club’s history, and they have shown that they have the quality to compete at this level. They were unlucky not to beat Atlético Madrid on the opening day of the season, but now they have claimed the biggest scalp of all.
For Real Madrid, though, this was another embarrassment in what has been a difficult season so far. Spanish sports paper Marca, a publication that is never knowingly understated, is already calling it a crisis. The champions sit third in the league, eight points behind arch-rivals Barcelona and four points adrift of rejuvenated Valencia.
While it would be preposterous to consider dispensing with Zidane after the enormous success of his first two seasons in charge, Madrid have never won the title having been eight points behind, and club president Florentino Pérez is not noted for his patience if things are going badly. The fact that Zidane is a club legend and still hugely popular with the fans means he should be afforded a bit more time than most.
Zidane himself sees no need to panic, saying it was merely a bad day at the office, and Barcelona will have bad days too. But despite his calm exterior, Zidane knows that anything but victory in Sunday’s game against Las Palmas at the Bernabéu could put him under a great deal of pressure for the first time in his managerial career.
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