Sports

Casemiro, Asensio 8/10 as Madrid stay level atop La Liga


Casemiro and Karim Benzema scored as Real Madrid beat Granada 2-0 on Wednesday night to keep pace with Atletico Madrid at the top of La Liga.

Granada could have gone ahead inside the first 30 seconds when Raphael Varane gave the ball away, only for Antonio Puertas to sky his shot over the bar. A first half of few chances saw Karim Benzema have a shot deflected wide, Rodrygo have a weak effort saved and Toni Kroos shoot off target before Rodrygo was stretchered off with a thigh injury.

After half-time, substitute Marco Asensio hit the post with a sublime back-heel flick before goalkeeper Rui Silva saved from Kroos and Federico Valverde. Finally, Real Madrid broke the deadlock, Asensio crossing for Casemiro to meet with a towering header. The last half hour saw Madrid defend their lead before Benzema struck in added time to make it five league wins in a row.

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Positives

This was a throwback to Madrid’s post-lockdown winning run last season, as the team dug deep to overcome an awkward opponent. In fact, it looked like being another 1-0 until Benzema made sure of the three points. It wasn’t always fluid, but overall, this was an impressive display, especially in the second half. The team has won every league game they’ve played in December and they’re now level on points with Atletico at the top of the table at Christmas, and in a strong position to go on and defend their league title in 2021.

Negatives

The first half was a disappointment, as Madrid looked more lethargic than they have of late. Perhaps it was a result of tiredness and the relentless calendar, or perhaps it was Granada’s defensive organisation, but the team rarely looked like scoring before the break.

Rodrygo’s injury — the seriousness of which will be confirmed in the next 48 hours — is unfortunate considering he had started the last two league games. Zinedine Zidane rates the teenager’s work rate off the ball, and goal threat on it, and both will need to be replaced.

Manager rating out of 10

7 — Zidane resisted the temptation to rotate his team again — a group of just 14 players have started the last six games — with only Valverde coming in for the injured Luka Modric. The side struggled to find the rhythm they’ve maintained lately and Zidane was forced into a first-half change when Rodrygo went off, opting for Asensio rather than Eden Hazard. That decision paid off, although replacing the hardworking Valverde with the more unpredictable Isco when protecting a one-goal lead was a surprise.

Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)

GK Thibaut Courtois, 7 — Got into trouble coming out to claim a ball inside the first 10 minutes but recovered to save the resulting shot from Kenedy. A very good save from Puertas in the second half.

DF Dani Carvajal, 7 — Had a volleyed first-half shot, which looked well on target, blocked. Defended well when the team came under pressure.

DF Raphael Varane, 7 — Almost got off to the worst possible start when he conceded possession straight from the kick-off and was then grateful to see Puertas miss the target. Had a second-half header saved.

DF Sergio Ramos, 7 — Up against former Madrid teammate Roberto Soldado, who is a difficult, experienced opponent, he led the defence in the last half hour as they defended a 1-0 lead.

DF Ferland Mendy, 7 — Caught a first-half elbow in the face from Dimitri Foulquier. Solid if unspectacular, Mendy looks more and more like a fixture in this team.

MF Casemiro, 8 — Could have given away a penalty for a tangle in the box with Yangel Herrera which wasn’t spotted by the referee or VAR, and then went on to score the opener. Has four goals in all competitions this season, an impressive return for a so-called defensive midfielder.

MF Toni Kroos, 8 — Playing in his 200th La Liga game, he shot wide in the first half and had an effort saved in the second. Has been close to his best in recent weeks.

MF Federico Valverde, 7 — Filling in for Modric, he continues to play a key role in a midfield looking to win possession high up the pitch, just as he did in the first half to create a chance for Benzema. Could have scored in the second half.

FW Lucas Vazquez, 6 — Has won his place in the starting XI on merit, but this was a quieter performance. Somewhat livelier after half-time while Rodrygo’s injury means he might keep his place.

FW Rodrygo, 7 — Started on the left where he enjoys the freedom to cut inside and had an early shot saved after finding space in the box. Hurt with just over half an hour played after a burst down the left and had to be stretchered off.

FW Karim Benzema, 7 — Had an early shot diverted into the side netting. Continually tried to make things happen but found if more difficult than usual to find space against a well-organised Granada defence, before an excellent run and finish late on.

Substitutions

FW Marco Asensio, 8 — Replaced the injured Rodrygo and provided his best performance for some time. Hit the post with an improvised flick before assisting Casemiro for his first goal contribution of this season.

FW Vinicius Junior, N/R — Played the last 15 minutes, and had to play a more defensive role than he’s accustomed to, with the team on the back foot.

MF Isco, NR — Came on late for Valverde and had one good chance blocked.



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