Luka Modric's late thunderbolt tops Granada, keeps Madrid in title race
Three points from Real Madrid's late 2-1 win over Granada at the Estadio Nuevo Los Carmenes on Sunday.
1. Modric keeps Madrid in the title race
Luka Modric's late piledriver got Real Madrid a 2-1 win in Sunday's late game and just about kept his side in the La Liga title race. Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane called this game a "must win" on Saturday, and his team's need became even greater with title rivals Barcelona and Atletico Madrid both winning earlier this weekend.
Zidane's fellow Frenchman, Karim Benzema, looked to have set Madrid on the road to that victory on the half-hour mark, when he tapped home from inside the six-yard box after good work from James Rodriguez and Dani Carvajal. Madrid were ahead on the scoreboard, but not in control on the pitch where the game ebbed and flowed and both side had chances.
Granada's equaliser came when Modric ran into referee Jesus Gil Manzano in his own half and lost the ball, which was quickly moved on by Ruben Rochina to substitute Youssef El Arabi, who slotted it low to the net with 60 minutes played.
Zidane immediately withdrew James for Jese Rodriguez, but it made little difference as the game grew very stretched. It could have been worse for Los Blancos, with El Arabi having the ball in the net but from an offside position at a corner, and then Gil Manzano ruling Keylor Navas played the ball when the Granada substitute claimed a penalty moments later.
At the other end, Madrid built pressure in the closing stages, but home goalkeeper Andres Fernandez was not troubled. Then, with just five minutes remaining, Modric found a yard of space at the edge of the box and hammered an unstoppable 25-yarder right into the top corner.
The Croatia international, who is not nearly as high profile as many of his teammates, has become perhaps Madrid's most important player. When his team really needed something and looked all but out of the title race, he came up with a huge, huge goal almost out of nothing.
The three points mean Madrid remain one behind second-placed Atletico and four adrift of leaders Barca, who have a game in hand. Zidane's side are still outsiders, but they remain in the fight.
2. Benzema scores, but Ronaldo doesn't
Benzema has now scored in each of Zidane's five games in charge, and has a pretty phenomenal 16 goals in his past 11 appearances. This purple patch brings his season totals to 23 goals in 22 matches across all competitions.
Many of Benzema's goals have been at key moments, too, not late additions to the scoreline when opponents are already beaten. He has also opened the scoring eight times this term in La Liga, three more than any other player in the division.
Just before hour mark, it seemed Benzema was set to make it 2-0. A superb first touch killed Modric's through ball, and his shot was decently struck but Fernandez pulled out a world-class save. That looked an even more important moment when just three minutes later El Arabi equalised for Granada.
Benzema's 19 goals in La Liga put him level with teammate Cristiano Ronaldo in the Pichichi top-scorer race, one behind Barcelona's Luis Suarez. But Ronaldo's have come in bursts, often against weaker opponents, and when his team did not need them so badly.
Here, the Portugal captain had three efforts at goal throughout the 90 minutes, but failed to hit the target at all. His best chance came early on, but he pulled the shot wide after being sent clear by James' early ball over the top. The now-31-year-old was also freed by an inch-perfect Modric pass behind the full-back, but lacked his old pace and tired a cross that was blocked.
3. Real's away form is concerning
Under both Zidane and predecessor Rafa Benitez, Madrid have been hammering opponents at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu through recent months, while struggling away from home. Other trips to Andalucia had also not gone so well for Los Blancos this season, with a defeat at Sevilla, the Copa del Rey debacle at Cadiz and a 1-1 draw at Real Betis a fortnight ago.
This was another far-from-complete performance from the team of superstars, who struggled for fluency when on the ball, with on-field general Modric seen more than once coming over to talk to Zidane as he and his midfield teammates struggled to get into the game.
Madrid's first goal came from their only shot on target of the first half, and in the opening 45 minutes it was often Granada who looked the more dangerous team. Eighteen-year-old Adalberto Penaranda was a constant menace on the left wing, and there were also passable shooting opportunities for Isaac Success, David Barral and Miguel Lopes.
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Away from the comforts of the Bernabeu, Madrid's Galacticos were unable to build momentum and finish the game off. Marcelo's raiding runs have been thrilling as his team built big scores in front of their own fans, but twice on Sunday slips in defence almost let Granada in to score.
This game really could have gone either way late on, with Modric's moment of genius deciding it for his side. The overall team performance was not much better than games since Christmas when Madrid have drawn at struggling sides like Betis and Gary Neville's Valencia.
As minds now inevitably turn to the Champions League, Madrid will need to dramatically improve their away performance when they head to Roma for a round-of-16 first leg in 10 days' time.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.