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Real Madrid's team effort leaves Zinedine Zidane with reasons to smile

The 82,000 happy campers who witnessed Real Madrid's thrashing of Espanyol on Sunday night left the Santiago Bernabeu with more than a glint of hope. At least at home, the squad seem to have recovered the spark it lost in the final months of Rafael Benitez's reign, and delivered another display of convincing offensive football in the first 45 minutes of the match. Well in line with the fans' impressions, new coach Zinedine Zidane flashed his smile several times in the news conference after the match, content with his side's joyful but determined attitude on the pitch.

A few aspects in their performance give good reason for the supporters' optimism. Karim Benzema's impeccable run of form continues, having added a good dose of clinical finishing to his accustomed repertoire of moves with and without the ball. Luka Modric, who left the pitch in the 62nd minute among a standing ovation from the crowd, has captured the essence of what Zidane wants from him to perfection. The Croatian participated in the match more often than he's ever done in a white shirt, which can only be a good thing for his club.

Daniel Carvajal's desire and hard work have indeed conquered the right flank, while Marcelo keeps his unpredictable forays going at the same high rate as he did when Benitez coached the team. Toni Kroos, back to his most dominating and accurate version, is impressively coordinated with Modric. And Keylor Navas has recovered the big-club goalie skill he showed at the beginning of the season: a couple of key saves that gave the team the confidence to keep charging forward.

Indeed, the opposition was poor. Espanyol arrived with five key absentees in their offense, with their top-scorer Felipe Caicedo's absence a particular blow. Only after the break, already trailing 4-0, Constantin Galca's men managed to put together a few strings of passes.

While one could easily assimilate the demolition of Espanyol to other categorical victories Real Madrid have starred in this season -- both with Benitez and Zidane -- there was something qualitatively different in this one. Indeed, we did see the same ruthlessness up front in the 5-1 defeat of Sporting Gijon under Zidane or the 5-0 win against Betis under Benitez.

And although we had witnessed most of the aforementioned players show flashes of that brilliance during the season, there were very few times all of them combined for such an energetic display. The key differentiating factor between the brutal defeat of Espanyol and other emphatic wins over average opposition was the choral performance of the whole team.

Fans finally saw several collective moves in offense, plays in which six to eight players got at least one touch and made the ball travel from side to side. And, the cherry on the proverbial cake: Cristiano Ronaldo and James Rodriguez played their best football of the season.

Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane
Real Madrid's impressive display against Espanyol gave Zidane reasons to smile on the touchlines.

The Portuguese striker remembered glories of yore with a fantastic goal, the kind of which he hadn't scored in a long time. The speed, the footwork, the dribble and the left-footed strike took spectators to a younger version of Ronaldo, a more unpredictable and less reliable striker who did things you did not expect.

Ronaldo chalked the team's performance up to an improvement in their physical condition, a factor that Zidane had already mentioned before the match. The Portuguese striker also criticised the preseason tour in his postmatch statements, but the clear jibes at former manager Rafael Benitez and/or President Florentino Perez do not matter much now.

The fact is, he and Rodriguez looked quite close to their best ever versions, playing with such intensity that they behaved like youth team players trying to earn a place with the seniors. The Colombian, as influential as ever in the final third, has also benefited from Zidane's fitness plan, but especially, and just like the rest of the side, from the Frenchman's eagerness to have fun while playing.

Zidane and his men will now enjoy another full week to keep working on their fitness plan and teamwork as they prepare to face 19th-position Granada away on Sunday. The real test will come in the following three matches, all of them at the inconvenient -- for Spanish lunch standards -- 16:00 kickoff time. Athletic Bilbao (at the Bernabeu), Malaga (away) and Atletico Madrid (home) will put enough pressure on Real Madrid for supporters and media to see how far they can actually go.

The boys in white put six past Espanyol without reply.

The first leg of the last sixteen Champions League round against AS Roma in the Italian capital, to be played between the Athletic and the Malaga matches, will add another level of complexity, as the relative peace and time to train Zidane has enjoyed during the weeks will come to an end.

Realistically, the La Liga title looks out of reach for Real Madrid, as Barcelona have learned how to win matches without playing their dazzling brand of football for more than a few minutes in each match. With a four-point advantage, one game in hand and one clasico left at the Camp Nou, the Azulgrana will need to suffer an unthinkable collapse to lose the trophy.

All Real Madrid can do is put together a decent winning streak, get the team geared up for the upcoming Champions League round and build on the exceptional atmosphere that Zidane has managed to develop in such a short period of time. Most supporters know well that once this team get going, almost anything can happen.

Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.


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