Ronaldo scores 500th career club goal as Real Madrid down brave America
Three thoughts from Real Madrid's 2-0 win over Club America to advance to the final of the FIFA Club World Cup.
1. Ronaldo, Benzema seal spot in final
On the eve of Real Madrid's meeting with Club America, manager Zinedine Zidane declared that the team's 35-game undefeated record did not take away pressure.
"We always have pressure -- you can win 35 games, but if you lose number 36 you feel annoyed," he said.
Against Las Aguilas, who put together a valiant first-half performance, Madrid struggled at first to find scoring opportunities for their front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lucas Vazquez and Karim Benzema.
America knew from the start that in order to put Madrid in trouble it would need to maintain great order in midfield and defence, which it did throughout the 90 minutes, but Ricardo La Volpe's team was not able to take advantage when it did go on the counter. Los Merengues, for their part, had a couple of great chances in the first half, including one Ronaldo header that hit Moises Munoz's post, and eventually made America pay for its errors.
Benzema's 46th-minute goal was cold-blooded, glorifying his class: the touch, the movement to open space and the clinical finish with the outside of his right boot. It was an individual effort that calmed Madridista spirits as they watched their team give a rather quiet first half, where their football in the final third didn't rightly represent the firepower they possess up top.
For America, conceding in the dying seconds of open play in the first half almost felt like a jab that automatically cut the Mexican club's chances of achieving a miraculous win.
In the 66th minute, Vazquez sent a precise cross in from the right for Ronaldo, whose attempt at heading home was way off the mark. An important chance to close out the game had gone to waste. The Ballon d'Or winner did find his goal, though, striking in stoppage time to double Madrid's lead, his 500th career club goal.
The final result read 2-0 in favor of the Spanish giants, and although the neutral spectator expected them to get a more lopsided victory, Madrid had control throughout, particularly after Benzema's strike. The Frenchman's goal provided the team with much-needed serenity; had it been scoreless at half-time, America could have provoked a massive scare for Madrid.
2. Vazquez puts in an excellent performance
There are details in Vazquez's game that make him flourish every time he lines up for Real Madrid. Whenever Vazquez is on the pitch, Zidane and his squad know what they're going to get. Vazquez's speed -- whether placed on the right or left flank -- battered down on America's full-backs on Thursday. The only way to stop him was by committing fouls and cutting his chances of sending in an excellent cross to either Ronaldo or Benzema.
Vazquez has played a major part in Los Blancos' now 36-game unbeaten run. In 55 appearances for the player, Madrid have lost just once. His inclusion in Zidane's XI over the likes of Isco and James Rodriguez indicates that the manager sees him as the best replacement for Gareth Bale.
It should not go unnoticed that when players like Vazquez, Alvaro Morata and Nacho -- all of whom were brought up at Madrid's La Fabrica -- receive playing time, they always rise to the occasion. The legend of Vazquez is in its earliest stages, but his contributions are one of the reasons Madrid will head to the FIFA Club World Cup final on the back of an unprecedented unbeaten streak.
3. Brave America returns to battle for domestic title
Putting Rubens Sambueza into the starting XI was a massive risk for La Volpe. Even though the Argentine midfielder provides his team with a spark in the final third, his lack of playing time in recent weeks showed in the game against Madrid. Not only did Sambueza falter on occasion, most of America's attackers looked rather off with their final touch. What worked for La Volpe, however, was his side's defensive stability, which included a great performance from goalkeeper Munoz.
America's performance was brave, and it highlighted what has gone well in the young La Volpe era at America -- the team's solidity in defence. Against the likes of Ronaldo, Benzema, Vazquez and Morata, a 2-0 result is not bad. Now the team will head to Mexico to try to win its 13th league title, a championship the club sees as a must-win in its centennial season.
La Volpe will have a full squad for the two-leg final series against Andre-Pierre Gignac's Tigres. Las Aguilas romance with the goal will have to quickly return if they aspire to win next week's Liga MX final.
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.