There was, ironically, nothing surprising about Real Betis’ 2-1 home win over then La Liga leaders Real Madrid. The Merengues have been playing up and down soccer since coach Zinedine Zidane took over following the short stints of his two predecessors.
Real Madrid’s W-D-L rhythm
One match Real will play well and win convincingly, another, like the recent Clasico, they work hard for but despite not playing inspired they luck out winning, yet another they play poorly and lose or tie. These can be back to back to back matches under Zidane. Their last five matches were L-W-L-D-W.
In week two Real drew 1-1 at home to Real Valladolid and followed that with a 2-2 away draw to Villarreal. In the ninth round, it was lowly RCD Mallorca, the recently promoted side, who beat visiting Madrid 1-0. The same Real Betis drew 0-0 at the Bernabeu in the eleventh week. The only consistency almost seems to be inconsistency.
The move to bring Zidane in was born of desperation and since his arrival, the old tune of bizarre strategic thinking at the Bernabeu seems to have taken root and recently reached a chaotic pinnacle. But it is the regularity with which one can predict a Real loss to a lesser team when it matters most that surprises.
Madrid’s roster is stellar; Spain’s La Liga is balanced enough to allow surprises but still maintain a three-tier status with Real Madrid and Barcelona on top, Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, Valencia, and a yearly upstart or two in tier two, and everyone else in tier three; and each year a coach, owner, or team, manages to succeed as an outlier to offer a surprise outside that mentioned hierarchy.
But inside those confines lives another weird constant. You can bet that if Real Madrid needs to win a La Liga game, and is facing a truly inferior team, whether at home or away, they will find a way to lose or draw. Last Sunday it was Real Betis, in the lower third of the domestic competition’s table, who pulled off a well-earned victory and upended the leaders.
The match was predictable: very intense with the hosts trying to put the giant visitors on their heels with as much attacking fervor as their roster could muster. But when that intensity eventually ebbed, the real contours of each team’s strengths took over. Real played a more aggressive offensive-minded game while Betis played for the counter. But it was the hosts who were making their tactic work. For each sustained Madrid attack which ultimately fizzled Betis would have a counter that almost came to fruition.
Finally, at the 40th minute, it was Brazilian central defender, Sidnei, who rocketed an unstoppable shot into the upper right of Thibaut Courtois’ goal for the deserved lead. Lady luck smiled on the visitors at the witching hour, though.
Karim Benzema converted off a penalty at the 45th+3 to draw the visitors even. But Betis deserved better and midfielder Cristian Tello sealed the deal at the 82nd with a wonderful breakaway.
As the match progressed and it became obvious his team was characteristically inert, Zidane began his substitutions. One was timely, Mendy for a touched and tired Marcelo at the 59th, but the other two were the Frenchman’s signature. He is simply unable to read a game in time to make the right substitutions. He is always making them too late to make a difference. Mariano came in at the 69th but had none of the outlandish luck he did in the Clasico. Ten minutes, that is eleven from the end of the game, later Valverde replaced Modric and had no impact on the match.
Zidane the coach
The other bugaboos of the previous Zidane tenure also reared their faces. One is a lack of perspective that would allow long-term strategic planning. If such were present this game might have loomed as important for the Bernabeu crowd and game tactics would have reflected an understanding of the opponents’ strengths on offense, for example.
Once again, Zidane used a line-up with enough new players who had not worked together recently to produce confusion in the defense and little chemistry on offense. The Frenchman also has a perennial reliance on favorite-son and countryman Benzema (who made the horrible, amateurish pass that led to the interception and assist on the Tello score).
An awareness of Betis’ capabilities and proclivities (particularly their quality counters which often just missed on scoring) should have resulted in Madrid’s players making sure no blind passes into the middle of the pitch were not often tried. Finally, all of this was compounded by Zidane’s inability to get the best out of half of his team (Kroos, Modric, Vasquez, Ramos, Varane, and Marcelo) which, if he had, should have been all the Madrid side needed to win.
So, with eleven games to go, and most marquee match-ups already played, Barcelona leads Real Madrid by two points and two goals and has but three teams to play from here on in who are in the top half of the table.
Was the match against well-known-opponent Betis, at this juncture in the tourney, important?
The 27th Round
At the conclusion of the 27th round, Barcelona topped the La Liga table with 58 points, followed by Real Madrid with 56, Sevilla with 47, Getafe with 46, and Atletico Madrid with 45. Barcelona’s Lionel Messi led all scorers with 19 goals followed by Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema with 14 and then four players at 11 goals apiece. On the assist side, Messi led with 12 followed by four players at seven each.