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Season Review: Barcelona

Barcelona
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 By Rob Train

Isco, Dani Carvajal craft Real Madrid romp over Sporting

ESPN FC's Paul Mariner reacts to Real Madrid's comprehensive victory over Sporting Gijon.

Real Madrid's 5-1 victory over Sporting Gijon on Sunday afternoon was that most cliched of football occasions; a game of two halves. For 45 minutes, the side that Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane sent out, which was unchanged from the 5-0 win over Depor other than centre-back Raphael Varane coming in for the injured Sergio Ramos, were unstoppable. Sporting had no answer to the home side's ferocious opening salvo and had conceded four inside 20 minutes.

Sporting have had their moments to remember this season but put in 45 to forget in the Bernabeu. Sporting boss Aberlardo Fernandez has one of the youngest squads in La Liga and despite possessing some individual players of genuine quality, the whole was simply overrun by a rampant Real side, whose first four strikes all came from the right, with Sporting failing to adjust to the opportunity the home side were ruthlessly mining. Isma Lopez and Alex Menendes were too high up the pitch and Nacho Cases too central.

Sporting, though, "won" the second half by flooding the midfield and bottling Real's exit routes, while also taking advantage of the home side's loss of shape after forced substitutions to Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema. Still, the atmosphere in the Bernabeu was buoyant and the fans were treated to a first half of exceptional quality, even finding time in the 34th minute to belt out a chorus of "Happy Birthday" to Alvaro Arbeloa.

Real MadridReal Madrid
Sporting GijónSporting Gijón
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Player ratings (1-10; 10=best; players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating):

GK Keylor Navas, 7 -- Navas had little to do for the most part but reacted well to a low, dangerous cross at Miguel Angel Guerrero's feet and made a decent save from Jony's 23rd-minute effort, Sporting's first of the match and one of only two shots on goal he was forced to deal with.

DF Dani Carvajal, 9 -- Good news for Zidane, and bad for Danilo, is the form Carvajal has shown since his return from injury. The right-back worked with Bale to carve open Sporting's right, allowing the Wales forward to move inside or draw defenders to him to leave acres for the forward to exploit. Carvajal assisted Ronaldo's second goal and was a constant threat. The only negative point came when he was left exposed by Real's high line and was a little slow to react to Jony's run for Sporting's consolation.

DF Pepe, 7 -- Pepe was always looking to build from the back and got forward for set pieces, shoving Benzema off the ball towards the end of the first half as he fancied a pop himself. The Portuguese was solid enough on the back foot but guilty of a bit of ball-watching for Sporting's consolation.

DF Raphael Varane, 7 -- Varane made a good tackle in the area to halt an Alen Halilovic run during a quiet first half. He had a bit more defensive work to do in the second, as he was left stranded as last man on several occasions, but he did enough to put Daniel N'Di off when the Sporting substitute muscled through to fire off a shot. Varane lost the flight of the ball and allowed it to bounce with Isma Lopez lurking when he should have got a head on it. He still looks a lot more assured alongside Ramos.

DF Marcelo, 8 -- The Brazilian didn't get forward as much as he likes but stood out at the back. He was correct in his positioning, covering on the line, when Lopez scored and made three good covering tackles when Sporting were enjoying a good spell in the second half.

MF Toni Kroos, 8 -- The German was combative in midfield and won the ball several times, helping his side to maintain possession in Sporting's half and feeding the flanks from an average position practically on the centre spot. Unsurprisingly, Kroos spent more time on the ball than any player on the field.

MF Luka Modric, 7 -- The Croatian maestro was relegated to a rare performance as second fiddle in the middle by Kroos' display. As a result, Modric drifted out to the right, where Real were already well-stocked going foward. His pass success percentage was similar to the German's (95 to 96), but he lost possession more often and recovered it with less frequency, while not making a single tackle.

MF Isco, 8 -- Isco played a glorious through-ball to release Carvajal for Real's fourth, pulling off another that Ronaldo should have buried for the fifth on 35 minutes. When the fifth goal arrived, it was Isco's work that set up Benzema. The Spain international was calling for ball in middle and after receiving it he played two deft chips to tee up his teammate.

Isco is thriving at Real Madrid under new manager Zinedine Zidane.
Isco is thriving at Real Madrid under new manager Zinedine Zidane.

FW Gareth Bale, 8 -- Bale opened the scoring with another run across the near-side defender and another header, his seventh for the season out of 13 strikes, with nine in his past five games. His run and assist for Benzema's first goal, off his right foot, was the mark of a player at the height of his confidence and powers. Typical, then, that his pesky calf problem should flare up again at the end of the first half.

FW Cristiano Ronaldo, 7 -- Ronaldo buried a thunderbolt for his 15th of the season to a huge cheer from the crowd, then scored his side's fourth by latching onto Carvajal's cross with a well-timed run. The No. 7 lost his rag a bit with a kick on Cases at the start of the second half and then missed a sitter after being put through by Benzema. Moving into the middle in the second half, Ronaldo was guilty of a little hat-trick fever, to the detriment of those around him.

FW Karim Benzema, 8 -- Benzema displayed wonderful footwork to tee up Ronaldo for Real's second and bagged his first goal with a technically impressive finish, then showed clinical calm to slot in his second, having held his run to avoid the offside trap. An ankle problem brought an early end to a virtuoso performance.

Substitutes:

FW Jese, 6 -- On for Bale at half-time, Jese operated mostly on the right but did get on the end of a couple of moves through the centre, showing a slightly heavy touch when he did so. Did well to chase down a ball and attempt a pull-back to Ronaldo from the byline and played a nice little ball for Marcelo in stoppage time.

MF James Rodriguez, 6 -- On for Isco, James was given a half-hour to prove a point, but luck wasn't smiling on him. He played a good ball for Ronaldo over the top and almost got on the end of Marcelo's cross but lost the ball under his feet.

MF Mateo Kovacic, 6 -- On for Benzema after his suspension for the Depor game, Kovacic had 25 minutes to impress his new boss. Although active in midfield, he wasn't really involved other than ceding possession a few times.

Rob Train is a freelance writer who lives in Madrid and covers Real Madrid for ESPN. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.

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