By Sam Lee
There are often goals, refereeing decisions or results that are looked back upon at the end of the season and seen as turning points. Real Madrid being 1-0 down at half time away at Hercules, however, will not be one of these. And that’s the key.
At the time, it looked like a big story was breaking. Hercules, who had already beaten Barcelona and Sevilla, did what no team has done so far against Jose Mourinho’s Madrid; they scored first. What’s more, it was with their first attack, and they protected their lead until the break.
But Madrid roared back; the big story was scrapped. Pictures of David Trezeguet celebrating and Mourinho puffing out his cheeks went unused. By the end of the night Madrid had reasserted their place at the top of the table with three second half goals. Despite falling behind, the history books will show a routine win. For most of the games from here until the end of the season, they will all be routine wins.
The imperious Cristiano Ronaldo notched two goals in the last eight minutes to grab the win after his earlier shot was fumbled by Hercules goalkeeper Juan Calatayud to allow Angel Di Maria to knock home the equaliser. Those two strikes made it 11 club goals for the month of October alone, and 38 goals in his 38 la Liga appearances.
But, for once, it was not all about Ronaldo. Karim Benzema, the man who has struggled to hold down a regular first team spot since joining from Lyon and who was declared ‘dead’ by the Spanish capital’s press before the match, was introduced with 15 minutes remaining. He may not have scored, but he teed up chief marksman Ronaldo for both of his goals and turned the game in Madrid’s favour.
After the game, his team mates were full of support for the downtrodden striker.
“Benzema was the key,” said Ronaldo, high praise indeed from the man who likes to be centre of attention. “I’m pleased for Benzema,” agreed Iker Casillas, the man who was nowhere near centre of attention in the second half as the ball barely left the Hercules half.
Most importantly of all, the manager had noticed the striker’s efforts.
“Benzema completely changed the game’s dynamics. He may not have scored, but his influence on our game was enormous.”
But making an impact from the bench can be counter-productive. On the one hand, you prove your worth to the team by showing your class, but at the same time it suggests to the manager that your talents are best suited to playing the end of a match, that you can be used to turn a game. That’s fine for some players, but not Benzema.
“People will realise I am a good player, I just need to play. Before the game, I told the coach I was going to work to play more.”
What is in store for the Frenchman remains to be seen, but taking his last two appearances into account, a stuttering performance as a starter against Real Murcia and a match-turning effort from the bench against Hercules, he may well find himself among the substitutes for two big upcoming clashes.
First, Madrid travel to the San Siro to face AC Milan in the Champions League. With three wins from three, and without a goal conceded so far, qualification from group G is all but guaranteed.
The game poses an interesting test for Mourinho on his return to Italy, and against the fans he riled so much during his glittering reign at rivals Internazionale. Of course, it also offers up a tricky tie for his players who have hitherto not been given a true test against traditionally strong opposition. Not to mention that most of the jeers they’ve so far experienced were from their own fans who were a bit tired after a 3-0 win over Espanyol.
A win in Milan would seal qualification to the knock-out stages with two games to spare, and provide more evidence that this Madrid side could be the real deal. Until they face bigger tests, at least.
Milan may have lost at home to Juventus on Saturday evening, but a Madrid win (maybe even a convincing one to lay the ghosts of the 1989 mauling to rest) would signal yet more strides in the right direction.
If a trip to Milan doesn’t prove a stern enough challenge, then the Madrid derby against Atletico at the weekend almost certainly will. Domestically, it will be the first time this season that a side will travel to the Bernabeu looking to put up a fight, and the first time Mourinho’s outfit will face a team with real quality.
As yet, nobody really knows just how good this Madrid side is, but come Sunday night a couple more pieces of the complex puzzle will have been put into place. Whether they will be vital pieces, unlike those slotted in at Hercules, remains to be seen.