Real Madrid defeated Atlético 2-0 in Sunday’s night’s Madrid derby, with Karim Benzema making the starting line-up and volleying in the opening goal before Marco Asensio sealed the three points in the second half. It was a statement win and a huge one in the title race, so let’s look at the questions that this performance and result answered and the new questions it has thrown up.
Coming into this game, the big selection question mark for each team was over who’d play at centre-forward. Karim Benzema suffered an injury last Saturday at Real Sociedad, while Luis Suárez had to come off in midweek against Porto for Atlético with an issue of his own. Both strikers made their respective squads, but only Benzema started and the Frenchman made the difference by expertly volleying in the opening goal in the 16th minute. He was taken off at half time with the score 1-0, having done his job, while Suárez came on for Atleti in the 60th minute when his team were already down 2-0. It was then too little too late for the Uruguayan.
Suárez wasn’t Atlético’s only injury concern, as they also had some serious issues in defence, such as only having two natural centre-backs for their back three. But, it seemed the biggest issue might be at right-back. Vinícius has spent this season getting the better of all kinds of right-backs, both good ones and bad ones, so surely he’d have a field day against a team missing both Kieran Trippier and Šime Vrsaljko? Well, not really. Marcos Llorente was deployed on that side and did a good job of marking the Brazilian, using his intelligence, fitness and strength to keep up with the 21-year-old. But, Vinícius still made an impact, moving centrally and then to the right wing in order to escape Llorente and set up the first goal, before his latest great counter-attacking contribution for the Asensio assist.
The RFEF gave Antonio Mateu Lahoz another big game, with the veteran referee in the middle for this one. He’s an official with so many critics from so many clubs, having angered every team at some point or another, that he might actually just be neutral. But, he’s also an attention seeker and likes to be the star of the show. So, would he do that? Would he let the game flow? Would he make a big decision? And would he make it correctly? There are so many question marks with Mateu Lahoz coming into such a game and, ultimately, he thankfully didn’t make the headlines. He did spend the final 15 minutes of the first half giving some fouls that weren’t fouls and not giving some that were, while doing the same with yellow cards. But, apart from that, he didn’t overly impact the game or the spectacle.
The final half hour of this match was weird. There was a sense of Real Madrid being in control, with shouts of “olé” going up around the Bernabéu every time Los Blancos completed another pass. But, Atlético actually created a few half-chances and Thibaut Courtois had to make some big saves, to follow the great stop from Griezmann’s first-half freekick. Atleti actually had a higher xG in this game than Real Madrid, albeit only slightly at 0.77 to 0.59. Courtois, then, was a big reason why Simeone’s side didn’t score and he even took one for the team by making a late save with his face. Was he quietly the man of the match?
It’s so hard to evaluate this stage of Marco Asensio’s career, because so much is conditioned by the year he had out with his ACL injury and because of the terrible 2018/19 he’d had even before that. Last year was a season for him to find his feet again physically and now 2021/22 is arguably the most important of his career, as he needs to make up for lost ground. His hat-trick against Real Mallorca when playing in midfield raised eyebrows for sure, but his performances on the right wing have been improving in recent weeks and he seems to have a better understanding with Carvajal than Rodrygo does – which would make sense, since they’ve been together longer. His goal in the derby was the perfect example of how impactful he can be from the right wing. But… his dilly-dallying on a shot just before his goal showed that he’s still not the consistent goalscorer fans want him to be. So, what exactly is Asensio right now? That’s the question.
Real Madrid are 13 points ahead of Atlético now and 18 ahead of Barcelona. Their closest challenger is actually Sevilla, who are eight points behind, although they’re about to lose some key players to the Africa Cup of Nations. So, Real Madrid are very much in control of the title race. Have they basically won it already, then? Well, the answer is “no” if you ask Ancelotti. Discussing this very question in his post-derby press conference, he replied: “When I was here before, we won 22 matches in a row in the second year, but the second half of the season didn’t go well. I don’t forget that.”