Real Madrid’s manager has changed and so has their luck. Their play is another matter, but they have at last won in the league – six matches later. Santiago Solari, the interim manager who replaced Julen Lopetegui and has 10 days left in the job before Madrid must make a permanent appointment, took up his place on the touchline at the Santiago Bernabéu, from where he spent much of the afternoon listening to whistles and watching his team get overrun. In the end, though, he did watch them win.
Real Valladolid smashed two shots against the bar, wasted two wonderful chances and drew a superb save from Thibault Courtois. But then, with seven minutes to go, they scored an own goal and four minutes after that they conceded a penalty, which the club captain, Sergio Ramos, scored. Madrid had found a way through, somehow. And the player who had led them there was Vinícius Júnior – the kid who has played a more central role in the downfall of Julen Lopetegui than even he realises.
Solari had said that he wanted his team to play with “two bollocks”, a phrase that felt a little out of character from one of the most eloquent, rational men in the game but very much in line with the current context. And here a banner was raised at the south end, while the fans stood in silence. Fans, it should be noted, whose role, and whose messages, are pre-approved by the board. “For this badge you have to die on the stands and on the pitch,” it read – a reproach for players accused of lacking commitment, effort, even professionalism. When the silence broke, it was broken by chants demanding “balls”.
Mostly, though there was quiet, not protest, a fairly timid series of Madrid approaches – headers from Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Casemiro – going by against a backdrop of little emotion. Until, that was, Antoñito was played clean through and clipped his shot over Thibaut Courtois, drawing whistles. There were more again a moment later when Toni Villa shot wide and then Enes Ünal had the game’s best chance with a diving header. The second half continued much the same way – Rubén Alcaraz’s shot crashing back off the bar before Villa drew a sharp save from Courtois.
Twice thereafter Valladolid worked their way through the pressure, the pitch opening out before them, inviting the final incision, only for the decisive pass to be misplaced. Those wasted passes were rare from a side that used the ball with clarity and tranquillity, playing their way past a Madrid side who, it now sometimes felt, were at their mercy. Fortune, though, favoured them.
Villa smashed another shot off the bar and Solari removed Bale, whistled off, and Marco Asensio. Vinícius came on, a cheer signalling great expectations on 18-year-old shoulders. Pace now was the plan. Or some sort of reaction, at least. It might be an exaggeration to say that they got that, but Madrid did get the goal, the victory, perhaps a little breathing room.
At one end, Courtois pushed away a venomous shot from Daniele Verde; at the other, Vinícius’s wayward shot hit the body of Kiko Olivas and rebounded into the net. Then Benzema was brought down. Ramos, who has felt fingers pointing his way, clipped in from the spot, his celebration speaking more of vindication and anger than joy.