Real Madrid needs to use dominant Apoel win to build La Liga momentum
Victory by a six-goal margin is generally an end in itself. Particularly when that victory comes in an away match in the Champions League. Yet the significance of Real Madrid's 6-0 drubbing of Apoel on Tuesday evening goes beyond its implications for the final standings in Group H.
A clear gap already had formed in Madrid's Champions League group before this round of midweek fixtures. Los Blancos shared the upper tier with Tottenham Hotspur. Borussia Dortmund and Apoel languished below. Qualification to the knockout stages of the competition was more or less assured ahead of the trip to Cyprus, even if it is in second place behind Mauricio Pochettino's outfit.
Madrid's position in the Primera Division is rather more precarious. Barcelona have propelled themselves to the top of the table through a combination of Ernesto Valverde's pragmatism and Lionel Messi's brilliance. They squint downwards from a distance of 10 points. Marcelino's resurgent Valencia are in second place, four points behind Barcelona, and six ahead of Madrid.
So it is in domestic competition that Madrid have work to do. A lot of it. They need the defeat of Apoel to mean more than three points and progression to the next round of the Champions League. They need that result in Nicosia to catalyse a reaction in La Liga.
Zinedine Zidane's team selection signaled that he viewed the match as an opportunity to inflate floundering players with confidence. The 45-year-old included the big names in his squad. Cristiano Ronaldo and the perpetually maligned Karim Benzema started in attack. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric retained the centre of the pitch, despite clamour for the inclusion of Dani Ceballos. All four players were under pressure to perform well and vindicate the team selection. They did so.
Neither Benzema nor Ronaldo had scored a goal in La Liga since the last-gasp victory at Getafe beneath the glow of the mid-October sun. Their two goals apiece in Cyprus were very timely.
"I'm delighted for them," Zidane glowed in the post-match news conference, "we knew that this [bad run of form] was going to pass. Now they have to keep working to continue like this."
That last sentence is important. Zidane's comment leaves a cavernous space for reading between the lines. He was congratulatory, but he laced his statement with an implicit expectation that the pair now will build upon their performances. Zidane is considered when facing the press. He is not the type to make throwaway comments. Benzema made a beeline for the dugout after scoring his first goal on Tuesday evening. He exchanged a warm high-five with Zidane.
He appeared grateful to his manager for the faith and patience he has shown. But both Benzema and Zidane need that performance to be the start of something rather than the culmination. The application of a thick layer of gloss to an already comfortable victory will be hollow if it does not precipitate a greater contribution in the moments that matter.
Same goes for Ronaldo, albeit with a slight difference. Whereas Benzema has struggled to find his goal-scoring touch across all competitions, Ronaldo has been as potent in the Champions League as he has been blunt in La Liga. A record of eight goals in five European matches contrasts starkly to one goal in eight domestic fixtures. In the Champions League Ronaldo has scored with 24.2 percent of his shots. That figure falls drastically to 1.8 percent of his shots in La Liga. It is difficult to find a logical explanation for such a discrepancy. The answer probably lies somewhere between bad luck, which will change, and the slight loss of sharpness that is inevitable in the 16th season of a player's career.
The significance of the midweek saunter to the eastern reaches of the Mediterranean will be revealed by Madrid's performances in a hectic spell of fixtures leading up to the crescendo of the Clasico just before Christmas. As a stand-alone result, it is of less consequence.
Malaga, in 18th place, will visit the Bernabeu on Saturday, buoyed by a late victory against fellow toilers Deportivo in their last match. Los Boquerones -- managed by former Madrid stalwart Michel -- have won two of their last three matches. Yet Ronaldo and Benzema will be looking at Malaga's defensive record while exchanging nods and winks. Only Las Palmas (30) have conceded more goals than Malaga (25) so far this campaign.
For their many flaws, Malaga do tend finish matches with a flurry. They have scored four of their nine La Liga goals after the 76th minute, meaning Madrid will need to remain focused as the match edges towards full time.
Zidane has received positive news in the form of Mateo Kovacic and Keylor Navas, who both took part in full training on Thursday. Gareth Bale did not appear with the group at Madrid's Valdebebas training complex, despite Zidane's earlier previous assertion that the Welsh winger would be back.
Real Madrid need their night in Nicosia to serve as a nudge from the top of the hill. A match against Malaga appears an ideal, gentle slope to allow further momentum to gather.
Matt McGinn is ESPN FC's Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93