Toni Kroos, Casemiro control the midfield for Real Madrid in Levante win
Real Madrid avoided another hammer-blow to the club's credibility in the Ciutat de Valencia on Wednesday evening, eventually prevailing 3-1 over a dogged Levante side whose performance was above and beyond a team languishing at the foot of the Primera standings.
Real have not particularly enjoyed their visits to Valencia's second side in recent years -- something that has been mirrored in their dealings with the capital's equivalent during the same period. But Real won and under the current circumstances that was exactly was required.
Zinedine Zidane was without several first team regulars -- Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema and Dani Carvajal -- and when the Frenchman was selecting his bench he would have been extremely relieved to at least have Pepe back.
Behind the starting back four was Castilla defender Alvaro Tejero, a full-back by trade, and little else. That is a question for the club to address in the summer. Zidane can only work with what he has and against Levante the effort of the players was in marked contrast to a few performances against Atletico at the weekend, when the title was almost certainly lost.
However, with Villarreal being held in Balaidos, Zidane's side at least eased away from the chasing submarine in the battle for third. It's not where Real Madrid want to be but the prospect of a Champions League playoff tie is not one that anybody at the club would welcome.
Player Ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Keylor Navas, 7 -- Navas made a good early reaction save from Giuseppe Rossi on his return to his former club and also pulled off a fine stop from Ruben Garcia in the second half with the score at 2-1. Should he have stayed back when Deyverson found himself through? Possibly, but he more than earned his coin elsewhere and his defence should have dealt with that threat.
DF Danilo, 6 -- A sloppy pass early on handed possession to the hosts and Zidane will not have been amused to see the Brazilian in no hurry to get back and make amends. Danilo gradually worked his way into the game and provided an extra attacking outlet, making a few runs and sending over a couple of decent crosses. He still looked more than a bit dodgy at the back though, a few last-ditch tackles making up for his lack of positional sense.
DF Pepe, 7 -- I confess I wondered if Pepe was fully fit at the outset but the captain on the night was the difference between four Levante shots on target and double that figure. Pepe cut out a cross on 23 minutes and was on hand to clear a free kick into the box a moment later while also making several vital clearances in the second period.
DF Raphael Varane, 6 -- Varane was busy appealing for a foul in the build-up to Deyverson's goal instead of dealing with the immediate threat. Play to the whistle is surely the most basic of tenets for a professional footballer, but Varane is not alone in the appeal first, remonstrate later stakes. Otherwise the France international was solid in the air if a little loose in his distribution.
DF Nacho, 7 -- Of Real's starting XI, only Toni Kroos had a higher pass completion rate and no Real player won more aerial duels. Admittedly Nacho generally opted for the short, safe pass but he got forward in support when he could and was more than solid at the back.
MF Casemiro, 7 -- After less than a minute of the game Casemiro put in a crunching tackle and that is exactly the sort of bite the side has been lacking recently. The Brazilian does still have a tendency to get carried away but his industry was the perfect counter to Levante's aggressive midfield approach. Two or three of his long passes would not embarrass Andrea Pirlo or his predecessor in the Real No. 14 shirt, Xabi Alonso. The only question is, why did Zidane ignore him until it was too late? The seven interceptions he made would have been handy against Atletico.
MF Toni Kroos, 8 -- With the onus fully on the German to run the midfield Kroos was near-perfect in terms of ball retention and spraying passes about from deep to open the flanks. Kroos covered a lot of pitch on Wednesday and was in the wars again as Real's most-fouled player but he tipped the balance in midfield and, as ever, hit the target with 97 percent of his passes. Not easy when you have half of the opposition biting your ankles.
MF Lucas Vazquez, 7 -- Vazquez was full of industry and intent and skinned Lucas Orban a couple of times to tee up Cristiano Ronaldo, but too often he took a touch too many or ran straight into a defender. That did earn Real's penalty and his direct approach -- Vazquez attempted more dribbles than any player on the pitch -- unsettled the Levante defence more than anything else the visitors tried.
MF James Rodriguez, 7 -- Rodriguez was entrusted with a start despite his woeful display against Atletico and got stuck in from the outset, eventually making more tackles than any of his teammates. However, his delivery was poor, at least two crosses clearing the far side of the box. His one decent set-piece, an inswinging corner, should have provided Ronaldo with a goal but the Portuguese headed over from close range. Rodriguez almost hit the back of the net with a fine dipping effort at the start of the second half and covered 10.1km overall, his 76 touches -- more than Kroos -- made on every inch of the turf.
FW Cristiano Ronaldo, 7 -- Ronaldo missed a header that would normally have hit the target but stepped up to bury the penalty with aplomb. He was unlucky not to get a second on the volley when his shot ricocheted off the post and racked up nine shots in total, with four between the sticks. Had Pepe not been on the pitch the armband would have gone to Ronaldo and in the absence of his senior strike partners he acted accordingly, encouraging and cajoling Vazquez and Borja Mayoral. His assist for Isco's goal was a perfect example of looking up and spotting a run.
FW Borja Mayoral, 6 -- The 18-year-old barely had a touch in the first half but when he did get a sight of goal he hit a firm shot that came off the post and into the net off the back of keeper Diego Marino's feet. Mayoral won't be too bothered and neither were his teammates, what with the score being 1-1 at the time. He's not the finished article yet and looked a bit out of his Segunda B comfort zone at times, but if Real play this one right Mayoral is a fascinating prospect.
MF Mateo Kovacic, NR -- On for Casemiro with a little under 20 minutes to play, Kovacic produced a couple of driving runs and, once again, a 100 percent pass completion rate.
MF Isco, NR -- On for Rodriguez with 10 minutes to go, Isco lost his marker beautifully to stroke in the third.
FW Jese, NR -- On for Mayoral with five to go, Jese made a glorious run through the heart of the defence and got his shot off, but it was too close to Marino to trouble the keeper.
Rob Train is a freelance writer who lives in Madrid and covers Real Madrid for ESPN. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.