Real Madrid rout Deportivo 5-0, win Zinedine Zidane's first game in charge
MADRID, Spain -- Three quick thoughts after Real Madrid easily defeated Deportivo La Coruna 5-0 in Zinedine Zidane's first game as Los Blancos coach.
1. Zidane's arrival lifts mood at the Bernabeu
Almost 10 years after his final Madrid appearance as a player, Zinedine Zidane returned to the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu as coach and oversaw a straightforward home win, helped greatly by a hat trick from Gareth Bale and two goals from Karim Benzema. The performance was not perfect, but there was enough on display to lift the mood of what had been a very gloomy Bernabeu over Rafa Benitez's last few months in charge.
Previously thought a taciturn public figure, Zidane has clearly been making an effort this week while smiling confidently through his press conferences, making training more fun for the players and telling the fans what they want to hear. There was also a crowd-pleasing selection with young Spaniards (and fans' favorites) Isco and Dani Carvajal returning to the XI.
The shape of the side was not too different from in recent months, generally a 4-3-3, but there was a more positive and liberated feeling about the team. During Benitez's reign, it had seemed his players were receiving instructions they did not fully understand and when ahead on the scoreline, they often sat back. Here they were playing the game they saw in front of them, even continuing to throw players forward once three points were already won. Late substitute runs for James Rodriguez and Jese Rodriguez, both under-used recently, also added to the feeling of a fresh start.
Zidane spent most of the 90 minutes pacing the edge of his technical area -- sharply suited, of course -- and watching the action calmly. There were occasional gestures to a player close to his touchline and often some supportive applause when a pass was misplaced. This happened a bit too often, especially during the opening stages, but the new boss's first game in charge went pretty well almost all the way round.
2. "B&B" fire but not "C"
It was pretty fitting that the first goal of the reign of Madrid's first French senior coach was scored by Zidane's countryman, Benzema, just 15 minutes in. There was a hint of offside against Bale, but the No. 9 cleverly flicked the ball in after Sergio Ramos had knocked a corner back toward the 6-yard box. The officials ultimately kept out of the way as the stadium acclaimed Karim's 100th La Liga goal in his 201st appearance in the competition. It was also his 10th strike in his past seven matches across all competitions.
The stadium did not have long to wait for goal number two. Seven minutes later, the recalled Carvajal got to the end line and crossed for the unmarked Bale to nod confidently past Depor goalkeeper German Lux. The Welshman made it 3-0 soon after halftime by firing Ronaldo's cross low into the net with a crisp, 15-yard left-footer. Bale also got the fourth, and his towering, near-post header from Toni Kroos' pinpoint corner again underlined his power in the air. Nobody across Europe's top five leagues can better his six headed goals so far this La Liga season.
Becoming the first La Liga player to score two trebles this season also went against rumors that the former Spurs player was unsettled following the sacking of his ally, Benitez. He even got a deserved standing ovation from the Bernabeu when he was removed late.
What was missing was a goal for Ronaldo, who endured a frustrating evening. The first 45 minutes saw regular shots taken but just one on target; a relatively simple, close-range header also hit a post. Into the second half, there were cheers from the crowd for a tackle to win the ball back in the Depor half, and seconds later, there was supportive applause as a weak shot went straight at Lux.
Ronaldo's goal appeared to have finally arrived in stoppage time, but Jese's cutback was not perfect, and the ball got caught under his feet. It spun to Benzema, who whacked in the final goal instead. The Portuguese finished with 10 attempts on goal but had not managed to get on the scoresheet. There was no sign of recent whistles directed at the superstar, with Benitez's sacking and Zidane's arrival meaning this was no night for recriminations.
3. Depor aren't party poopers this time
Deportivo have a history as spoilers at the Bernabeu, and former Madrid youth teamer Victor's side began pretty impressively, trying the high-press style other teams (including Gary Neville's Valencia) have used to trouble Los Blancos in recent weeks. The visitors even had the game's first proper chance: A cleverly worked, short corner got Depor's top scorer, Lucas Perez, free inside the box, but Keylor Navas sprang from his line to save.
Giving away two relatively simple goals from crosses in the first 25 minutes was not part of the plan. But even still, a confident side that had lost just three times all season kept playing even when 2-0 down, and just before halftime, Lucas Perez sent two 25-yard drives just wide of either post. As has been the case so often for Madrid in recent years, there was a space between defense and midfield for opponents to exploit.
Zidane famously scored a superb goal when Madrid won the 2002 Champions League, but his last three seasons as a player were less happy, as a galactico-heavy team went three seasons without a trophy. There were more enthusiasm and freedom about Madrid's play here than in recent games under Benitez, but there was no real evidence yet of a new defensive rigour.
Bigger tests lie ahead, but this was a generally positive evening for Madrid. A favorable upcoming domestic fixture list -- and no Copa del Rey commitments -- give Zidane a chance to tweak things and gain momentum before the Champions League last 16 against a very out of form Roma side in mid-February.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan