Ronaldo, Madrid avoid last-day drama to clinch La Liga title with Malaga win
MALAGA, Spain -- Here are three thoughts from Real Madrid's 2-0 victory at Malaga, which saw Zinedine Zidane's side clinch their first La Liga trophy since 2011-12.
1. Madrid get the job done to win La Liga
Goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema were enough, as Real Madrid beat Malaga 2-0 to claim the 2016-17 La Liga title in comfortable fashion.
There was little doubt from the second minute about the win, which secured Madrid's 33rd La Liga championship. It was the sixth time they had clinched the trophy on the final day. The serene victory here took them to 93 points -- the third-highest total in the club's history -- and three ahead of Barcelona, whose 4-2 comeback win at home to Eibar made no difference in the end.
After such a long buildup and much talk about Malaga coach Michel's former life as a Madrid midfielder, there was very little real drama about the final day, with things playing out pretty much just as Zidane's side hoped.
Just under 90 seconds had elapsed when Luis Hernandez, one of the five ex-Blancos players in the Malaga squad, miscontrolled the ball straight to Isco, who was in space midway inside the opposition half. The playmaker immediately produced an immaculate through pass behind the square home defence, and Ronaldo did the rest with typical economy, rounding Carlos Kameni and knocking the ball to the empty net.
News soon filtered through of Takashi Inui's cracking goal to put Eibar 1-0 up at the Camp Nou, and the feeling around the stadium was already one of "game over." Madrid were now content to sit deep and defend, controlling the pace of the game through Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in midfield and occasionally hitting on the break.
Malaga did at least look to make a game of it in a flurry before half-time, with their former Barcelona forward Sandro Ramirez forcing an excellent save from Keylor Navas and one-time Atletico Madrid youth teamer Keko heading over from 8 yards.
Soon after the break, Benzema made it 2-0, as Madrid yet again scored at a Kroos-taken corner. Two Malaga players were booked for complaining that the France striker had been offside amid pinball when Sergio Ramos' initial effort was saved by Kameni. It would not be last day in La Liga without some kind of controversy, but Barca's struggles against Eibar over in Catalonia took the heat out of the debate.
As both teams rang the changes, Benzema had another goal ruled out for offside, and Ignacio Camacho flashed a header just over at the other end. Zidane's team never looked in trouble, though, and there was never any sense of a surprise in the stadium.
After their brief celebration on the pitch here, Madrid's players were flying straight back home Sunday night, headed for the capital's Cibeles Fountain, where they were aiming to continue the party around 2 a.m. local time. A first La Liga title in five seasons will be heavily, and understandably, feted around the Bernabeu.
Although, as Zidane has said, they have "suffered" at times through the campaign, there can be no real argument about who have been the most consistent team in Spain over the 38 games this year.
2. Ronaldo scores again for second league title
Ronaldo was the first Madrid player off the team bus at La Rosaleda 90 minutes before kickoff, and he looked just as eager to get things sorted early here. For the early goal, Ronaldo timed his run perfectly to stay onside and then clinically slotted what was his 14th goal in nine matches as he has accelerated toward the end of the campaign, having benefitted from agreeing to Zidane's new rotation policy.
That brought the Portugal captain, 32, to the 25-goal mark in La Liga, which he has reached in each of his eight years in Spain, as well as 40 in all competitions in each of the past seven years. But most importantly, the cool strike set Madrid on their way to what was just Ronaldo's second La Liga winners' medal.
All through his time in Spain, even as he has racked up Ballon d'Or personal awards and "Pichichi" top scorer prizes, a lack of team success over the 38 games has been fuel for Ronaldo's critics. This season, he has accepted more of a focus on the team over the individual, and he missed out to Lionel Messi as top scorer. But he has scored key goals right at the end, and it has all paid off for everyone involved at Madrid.
3. Madrid turn attention to Cardiff as Champions League looms
Zidane added to the feeling that this was a victory for the entire squad, rather than the superstars, by naming everyone in his travelling party, with injured Gareth Bale and Daniel Carvajal and his son Enzo also making the trip. But there was a feeling that the manager has landed on his favoured XI ahead of the looming Champions League final against Juventus.
After months of rotation, Zidane named an unchanged team from their 4-1 win at Celta Vigo midweek, rejecting the chance to freshen up his lineup. That meant that Isco was again in an advanced midfield role, and he impressed once more. Besides his excellent assist for the opener, there were a few trademark surges on the ball through the centre.
That 4-4-2 shape leaves some gaps, especially down the wings, and Malaga's best chances came from wide. Sandro tested Navas with a dipping drive from out wide on the left. The free kick from which the Costa Rica international made his best save of the evening also came from that position, as did the cross that Keko put over from close range.
Bringing Carvajal back for Danilo at right-back in Cardiff in two weeks' time will help that to an extent, but at this point, it seems most likely that Bale will be on the bench in his home city to avoid any risks. No matter who starts, this Madrid team have their weaknesses, which Juventus' coaching staff are sure to have noted.
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