Ronaldo brace flatters to deceive as Madrid struggle in Real Sociedad win
A misleading 3-1 victory against Real Sociedad put a fitting end to Real Madrid's 2015, a year to forget for the Madridistas. The win did little to appease the Santiago Bernabeu faithful, who at several instances during the match booed both the team and the under-fire coach Rafael Benitez, and in an even louder manner after the final whistle.
For the best part of the 90 minutes, the hosts struggled to create chances against La Real, lost the battle in the middle of the park and needed to take advantage of a few wrong decisions awarded by referee Jose Luis Gonzalez Gonzalez. Benitez's insistence on a three-man midfield beneath Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo up front showed the same unbalanced team that we've become accustomed to watch this season.
Ever since the 1-0 defeat at Villarreal on Dec. 13, every fixture has conveyed the feeling of a match ball for the coach. The next encounter against Gary Neville's Valencia on Sunday will not be different. In fact, it could prove fatal.
Player ratings (1-10, 10=best; players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Keylor Navas, 8 -- Bruma's stunning strike was unstoppable, but the Costa Rican saved at least three other clear-cut chances to keep Real Sociedad from increasing their goal count. Key to get these three points.
DF Danilo, 5 -- Moved forward with ease, but left his flank unprotected excessively often. His positional doubts and lack of bite in the defensive end have become evident for opposing teams, as seen in Real Sociedad's goal. Bruma showed no respect for the Brazilian.
DF Pepe, 4 -- Gave enough reason for the referee to call two fouls inside the box, but was extremely lucky to get away with both. Soft in Real Sociedad's goal, he represents better than anyone else the level of anxiety the team is undergoing at this point.
DF Nacho Fernandez, 6 -- The fact that Nacho has become an example of seniority and calm in Real Madrid's back four says a lot about the evolution of the team's defence: from impenetrable at the start of the season to the current positional chaos. He compensates his technical and physical limitations with sheer force of will, but he should not be a regular starter in this squad.
DF Marcelo, 7 -- This victory came from the most surreal of set plays, one that looked totally improvised: Marcelo took his first corner kick in months from the left side, and Cristiano Ronaldo struck an excellent volley. Besides this assist, the Brazilian struggled to make an impact in the final third, but kept his flank tidier than his teammate Danilo.
MF Luka Modric, 6 -- The Croatian was the only member of the midfield trio with an acceptable performance. Asked for the ball, moved around and prevented a couple of counters from Real Sociedad. He needs more help from his colleagues in the middle of the pitch.
MF Toni Kroos, 3 -- At this point of the season it's hard to know whether the German's issue is mental, physical or both. The fact is that he no longer resembles the uber-midfielder that marshalled this same squad during November and December of 2014. Poor positioning, scarce inspiration and a blatant lack of interest in the proceedings leave his team orphan in such a pivotal role.
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MF James Rodriguez, 4 -- Not his finest match in a white shirt by any stretch of the imagination. The Colombian went unnoticed for most of the first half, and then was wasteful with his passing in the first 15 minutes of the second. However, the question remains: Is this an issue of the player or of the tactical disposition?
FW Gareth Bale, 7 -- Two crosses from the Welshman ended up in two -- incorrect -- penalty decisions from the referee, and a third gave Lucas Vazquez the chance to finish off the match. Bale has used the wings more in the past three matches than in the rest of the season, and that seems to favour his strengths.
FW Karim Benzema, 5 -- Absent and disconnected from the rest of the team, the Frenchman showed in very few occasions that he can trouble most defences with his positional play and the use of his body.
FW Cristiano Ronaldo, 8 -- A moment of inspiration by the Portuguese striker won this one for Real Madrid, as he struck perfectly a corner kick by Marcelo, putting the ball in the low corner of the impressive Geronimo Rulli. Before that, he'd missed a penalty and scored another goal from the spot, but went largely unnoticed, his performance damaged by his team's below-par display in midfield.
MF Mateo Kovacic, 4 -- Replaced James Rodriguez after 60 minutes. Did not do much to improve the Colombian's below-par performance.
FW Lucas Vazquez, NR -- Replaced Benzema after 76 minutes and scored a magnificently taken goal that finished off the match.
MF Casemiro, NR -- Sorely missed during the first 87 minutes, left the bench to waste some time before the final whistle. It's shocking that Benitez still believes that a three-man midfield is defensively viable in this squad without the Brazilian. The fact that the most exciting surprises of this half season for Real Madrid -- Casemiro and Lucas -- only played a combined 17 minutes in such an important match for Benitez makes a telling story of his six months at the helm of the club.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.