On paper, it looked like the perfect opposition. What better fixture to build up some confidence after a shaky start to the season than a trip to face La Liga whipping boys Alavés? They hadn’t even scored a goal in their five games so far this season – surely the champions would put them to the sword?
Well, not quite. Real Madrid did leave the Basque country with three points on Saturday, but the goal glut many predicted never materialised. New signing Dani Ceballos scored twice on his first La Liga start for the club, but Madrid looked far from comfortable as they limped to a 2-1 win.
Madrid’s struggles this season have come at home, where there is huge pressure to perform in front of their famously demanding fans. Isco admitted after last week’s home defeat to Real Betis that “the anxiety creeps in” if they don’t get an early goal at the Bernabéu.
Their only wins so far this season have come on the road, where they have been able to play with a bit more freedom. But on this occasion, the jitters that have affected their home form seemed to follow them to the Mendizorroza. Ceballos aside, Madrid were wasteful in front of goal. The general feeling among Madridistas was that the return of Cristiano Ronaldo from suspension would get them firing again, but he has drawn a blank in both league games since his comeback. Just one of his six shots tested Fernando Pacheco in the Alavés goal, although he was unlucky to see a curling shot rebound off the post.
Ronaldo wasn’t the worst culprit when it came to squandering chances, though. Captain Sergio Ramos, ten yards from an open goal under no challenge whatsoever, somehow managed to miss the target by a considerable distance when it was far, far harder to miss than score.
But it wasn’t just in front of goal that Madrid struggled. They were nervy in defence, and after Ceballos had put the champions 1-0 up, they allowed Alavés to equalise with their first goal in 490 minutes of football this season. Manu García’s run was not picked up, and he was able to get on the end of Munir El Haddadi’s cross to score an emphatic header.
In truth, it could have been a lot worse for Real Madrid. In the second half, with the score at 2-1, Alavés substitute Alfonso Pedraza hit the woodwork on two occasions. The first took a heavy deflection, but the second was the result of a terrible piece of defending from Raphaël Varane which left Pedraza through on goal. His shot beat Keylor Navas but bounced off the inside of the post, much to the French centre-back’s relief.
Although they performed poorly and rode their luck at times, Madrid managed to grind out a precious victory. Ultimately, the result is king, and come the end of the season the performance will be forgotten. Having already fallen seven points behind league leaders Barcelona, anything but three points here would have been an unmitigated disaster for Madrid, and in the context of the season this was a hugely important victory for Zinedine Zidane’s side.
Zidane himself was aware of the importance of the victory in light of the performance and the club’s recent poor form, but was typically calm and measured in his assessment of Madrid’s current situation, saying “it was not easy, this is not a brilliant period for us. We will have much better days and we will play much better than this, but we achieved our objective, which was to win”.
Indeed, they had a much better day in their first test after this laboured victory, with a superb 3-1 Champions League win in Dortmund on Tuesday night. Zidane will be relieved to see Cristiano Ronaldo’s ‘goal drought’ (by his extraordinarily high standards) come to an end, and a fantastic goal for the much-maligned Gareth Bale will hopefully give him some confidence, and earn him some respite from his detractors.
Next up for Madrid is a home game with Espanyol on Sunday night, which will be a true test of whether they have overcome their early-season blip. Zidane insists that Madrid haven’t lost their confidence, and a first home La Liga win this season would be the perfect way for his side to prove their manager right.