Cristiano Ronaldo, Madrid show signs of turning it around in win at Valencia
VALENCIA, Spain -- Three points from Mestalla on Real Madrid's 4-1 win over Valencia in La Liga.
1. Relief for Zidane
Two penalties from Cristiano Ronaldo led the way as Real Madrid got a much needed 4-1 La Liga victory at Valencia on Saturday afternoon, with both the result and the performance easing the pressure on under-fire Blancos coach Zinedine Zidane.
It was not a complete showing from Madrid, who let Valencia back into the game in the second half via Santi Mina's header, but they came on strong again in the final quarter hour and sealed a hugely important victory thanks to late goals by Marcelo and Toni Kroos.
Madrid might have gone ahead on just eight minutes when Gareth Bale almost capitalised after a mix-up between Valencia goalkeeper Neto and defender Ezequiel Garay. Los Blancos were 1-0 up soon afterwards when Ronaldo led a break from a corner, and then converted from the spot after he himself had been bundled over by Martin Montoya.
An entertaining game continued to flow back and forward, with Geoffrey Kondogbia making but missing chances at the other end. But it was 2-0 seven minutes before half-time, when Montoya again gave referee Xavier Estrada Fernandez little option but to point to the spot by jumping into Karim Benzema's back. Ronaldo went the other way from 12 yards this time, but with the same result.
Two goals ahead so early, Madrid should have been able to sit back and control possession, but that is not really a speciality of Zidane's side. Valencia kept pressing, and deservedly got one back when Santi Mina headed in Dani Parejo's corner. Madrid keeper Keylor Navas then saved excellently when it seemed ex-Madrid youth teamer Parejo had made it 2-2.
The visitors came through that sticky patch though, and struck decisively themselves with six minutes remaining. Left-back Marcelo, who cut through the entire Valencia defence -- with some help from Ronaldo -- before firing straight through Neto at the near post. Man of the match Kroos then knocked home from the edge of the area to seal a really important win.
The result which was particularly big for Zidane given that Madrid had not won at Mestalla since 2013-14, and defeats here had led quite directly to exits for predecessors Carlo Ancelotti and Rafa Benitez. A first away win in La Liga since October was also perfectly timed, and will end all speculation that president Florentino Perez might replace him ahead of the looming Champions League last-16 tie with Paris Saint-Germain.
2. Ronaldo and BBC are back
This afternoon saw Madrid's much feared but also often criticised "BBC" strikeforce reunited from the start of a game for the first time in 280 days -- a time during which the team had won five trophies, but also entered into a full-blown crisis over the last couple of months.
Madrid's big-name attackers were all important today -- with Ronaldo taking the plaudits again. The first goal was typical of what Madrid have done so well going all the way back to Jose Mourinho's time in charge, and Bale and Benzema were both involved in the lightning break from a corner kick which lead to the penalty. Both spot-kicks were clinically converted too, giving Neto no chance in the Valencia goal.
Ronaldo might have scored from open play too when presented with decent chances by Kroos, Bale and Modric and could have had another penalty after a third coming together with the unfortunate Montoya.
Valencia's resurgence saw Zidane replace both Bale and Benzema by the end, but Ronaldo remained on the pitch to provide the flicked assist from which Marcelo killed the game. Added to his two strikes last week against Deportivo La Coruna, the impression is that the Portuguese is returning to form, with the season's biggest game just around the corner.
3. Still things to fix ahead of PSG
This was a quite typical performance from when Madrid have been at their best in recent years -- they rode their luck at times in defence, but were clinical in attack with big-name players coming up with the goods when needed.
It was far from a perfect 90 minutes, with Kondogbia overshadowing Casemiro in midfield, and Rodrigo and Mina causing Nacho Fernandez and Raphael Varane plenty of bother at the back. The Mestalla crowd was also angered by what they saw as favourable treatment from Estrada Fernandez, but opposition fans getting frustrated in this way is another sign of Madrid at their most successful.
The three points against a direct opponent should help ease worries about Madrid's top-four place, and there are now two easier (on paper at least) games coming up against struggling Levante and Real Sociedad before PSG come to the Bernabeu on Feb. 14.
They will still want to get injured captain Sergio Ramos back in defence, and to work on fitness issues which often see them having a dip in the second halves of games. That recent history did make the late push which they ensured the victory even more impressive however. This visit to Mestalla was a big step in the right direction for Zidane and his team.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan