Real Madrid hosted Villarreal at the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium on Thursday evening in a game which, if won, would mathematically confirm Los Blancos as the new La Liga champions with a game to spare. Sitting four points above arch-rivals Barcelona, the last round would be of no consequence when it comes to the top-end of the table.
Villarreal, however, headed for this match from the fifth place with 57 points to their name, with no chance of catching up with Sevilla in fourth with 66, but their place in next season’s Europa League was far from certain given that both Getafe in sixth and Real Sociedad in seventh were on 54 going into their matches of this round, against Atletico Madrid and Sevilla, respectively.
Real head coach Zinedine Zidane couldn’t call upon defenders Marcelo and Nacho, who were both injured. Striker Luka Jovic was on the bench, having completed a self-isolation period after coming into contact with a friend who recently tested positive for Covid-19.
Thibaut Courtois was in goal. Captain Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane paired up in the heart of defence, flanked by Dani Carvajal and Ferland Mendy. Casemiro anchored the midfield, with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in more advanced roles. Rodrygo Goes and Eden Hazard supported striker Karim Benzema in attack.
As for the visitors, coach Javi Calleja was without the services of defender Ramiro Funes Mori and forward Carlos Bacca, while goalkeeper Mariano Barbosa was suspended.
Sergio Asenjo stood between the posts. Pau Torres and Sofian Chakla were the centre-back pair, flanked by Mario Gaspar and Xavi Quintilla. Andre Anguissa and Manu Morlanes were tasked with the hard work in the middle of the park, with Moi Gomez, Samuel Chukwueze and Ruben Pena played behind striker Gerard Moreno.
The First Half
The game began in a lively fashion with both teams pushing forward and the first chance came to Real in the fourth minute when Carvajal suddenly broke forward and tried to chip the ball over Asenjo, but the visitors’ goalkeeper was alert.
The would-be champions quickly took control of the proceedings. Only three minutes later, Benzema found Modric on the right flank and ran into the box, and the Croatian found his run inside, but Benzema’s shot was deflected too kindly for Asenjo.
Nonetheless, there was always a large number of white shirts in the opposition half, even out of possession. Their high pressing made it very difficult for the visitors to get the ball forward and Zidane’s men frequently won it back quickly. Villarreal were organized defensively, but that was all they could do at that point. In the 12th minute, Casemiro tried to surprise them with a 30-yard power-drive, but it went high over the bar. Two minutes later, the Brazilian made a nice interception and immediately sent the ball towards Benzema in the box. The French striker struck a nice first-time volley but failed to hit the target. Then it was Modric’s turn to try his luck from range and he did very well, but so did Asenjo.
It took the visitors 23 minutes to create something that looked like a chance. Pena made an interception in the opposition half and found Chukwueze inside the box, but the Nigerian ran into a crowd near the penalty spot and failed to get a shot off.
But just as it looked the visitors might get a foothold in the game, they got too comfortable in the 29th minute and it proved costly. They lost the ball to Casemiro in their own half and Modric charged forward. He then employed Benzema on his right, and facing Asenjo one-on-one this time, the striker made no mistake.
Villarreal tried to be more progressive in their approach after going down, but the home side still didn’t deviate from their original approach. There was very little space they could use, and they mostly resorted to longer passes from the back towards runners in behind, but those simply weren’t accurate enough to trouble the Real back line. The first time they managed to get forward in numbers and keep meaningful possession in Real’s half was in the 41st minute, but they were eventually thwarted by a smart piece of defending from Carvajal.
Overall, very little changed after the opening goal. Real were still dominating and pushing forward, looking to add to their lead, and it seemed they would come close in the 44th minute when Rodrygo broke past Quintilla on the right and pulled it back towards the six-yard line, but there were no white shirts there to pounce.
The Second Half
Villarreal boss Calleja made two changes for the second half. Ruben Pena and Chukwueze made way for Bruno Soriano and Javier Ontiveros.
The visitors imposed themselves on the game a bit more in the opening minutes of the second period. They took the ball and pushed Real back, and it took the title contenders five whole minutes to regain some measure of control.
In the 54th minute, Real quickly moved forward and Modric produced an out-of-this-world pass with the outside of his foot to find Carvajal running down the right flank. Upon entering the box, the fullback beat Torres first and then Quintilla, cut inside and fired on target, forcing Asenjo into a fine save. Surrounded by yellow shirts, Hazard failed to make use of the rebound.
Nonetheless, the tide had swung back in Real’s favour at that point and the game looked like most of the first half again.
The coaches made two changes each in the 63rd minute. For Real, Vinicius Junior came on to replace Hazard and Marco Asensio took the place of Rodrygo. Santi Cazorla came on for Villarreal instead of Gomez, and Vicente Iborra replaced Morlanes.
Four minutes later, Villarreal suddenly broke forward down the left and entered the box. Courtois came out and tried to dispossess him, but all he got was the fullback’s knee in his face. Zidane sent Alphonse Areola to warm up in case he needed to replace his goalkeeper, but the Belgium international recovered and played on.
As the game entered it’s final quarter, it became obvious that Real pulled their lines a bit deeper, allowing more space for their opponents and looking to hit them more directly. And in the 74th minute, it produced results.
Sergio Ramos intercepted a pass near the halfway line and burst forward. Referee Alejandro Hernandez judged the Real captain to have been tripped upon entering the box and gave a penalty. Ramos himself stepped up to take it, but then he chose to just nudge the ball a foot forward for Benzema to slam in. The striker did so, but Hernandez wanted it taken again as Benzema entered the box before Ramos touched the ball.
Now Benzema himself stepped up again and scored. Villarreal players and coaching staff protested against these decisions. The penalty decision itself was questionable, as was the decision to have the spot-kick retaken after a Real player made the infringement. But be that as it may, Real now had a two-goal lead.
With their lead stretched, Los Blancos now played with a lot more confidence, perfectly mirrored by Kroos’s 30-yard effort which hit the post just a few minutes later.
But it seems it was now their turn to grow too comfortable, and in the 83rd minute, Villarreal attacked through Gaspar who whipped in an accurate cross from deep and found Iborra in the box. The substitute midfielder then produced a perfect header which bounced off the post on its way past the flying Courtois and into the net.
The goal gave the visitors hope and Iborra now took a more permanent position alongside Moreno upfront. They attacked far more frequently and came very close to equalizing in the 87th minute. A corner was taken and the cross caused mayhem in Real’s box, and eventually, the ball fell to Chakla who blasted his shot from just over 12 yards over the bar.
Three of the six minutes of injury time were gone when the visitors came even closer. Another great cross from Gaspar ended up going straight towards the goal, forcing Courtois into a parried save. Quintilla then redirected it on target but the Belgian made another excellent save, this time with his feet, before Iborra missed the target from close range.
It seemed Real had punished them for the missed chances quickly as as Vinicius broke past three opponents on the left and pulled it back for Asensio, who slammed in from six yards. But upon a look at the VAR screen, the referee rightly judged that Benzema had handled the ball in the buildup and disallowed the goal.
Real won’t care, though, because the game was soon over and the victory meant they had won their 34th La Liga title.
As for this game, it cannot be disputed that Real were the better team for a large portion of the contest. On the other hand, the way they allowed the visitors to create chances late on and came close to dropping their prey, it wouldn’t have been unfair if Villarreal did manage to find a late equalizer either.
But as it turned out, none of it mattered in the end. Barcelona suffered defeat at the hands of Osasuna at the same time this game was played, which meant Real would have been crowned champions here regardless of the result.
There has been and probably will be a lot of talk about the penalty decisions Real Madrid got in the last couple of games of the campaign, and there is a widely spread ‘conspiracy theory’ that they were intentionally nudged forward as it’s believed a change on the throne would keep the league more interesting than if Barcelona had won it again, but it’s all over now and it doesn’t do to dwell on these things.
Congratulations to Real Madrid.
REAL MADRID: Courtois 8, Ramos 7.5, Varane 7, Carvajal 7.5 (84′ Vazquez N/A), Mendy 7.5, Casemiro 7, Kroos 7 (85′ Isco N/A), Modric 8.5 (85′ Valverde N/A), Rodrygo 7 (63′ Asensio), Hazard 6.5 (63′ Vinicius), Benzema 7.5.
VILLARREAL: Asenjo 7.5, Chakla 6.5, Torres 6.5, Gaspar 6, Quintilla 6.5, Pena 6 (46′ Soriano), Anguissa 7 (82′ Trigueros N/A), Morlanes 5 (63′ Iborra 7), Gomez 5 (63′ Cazorla 6.5), Chukwueze 6.5 (46′ Ontiveros), G. Moreno 6.5.
GOALS: Benzema 29′, 77′ (P), Iborra 83′.
YELLOW CARDS: Carvajal 54′, Modric 62′,
REFEREE: Alejandro Hernandez.
DATE & VENUE: July 16, 2020, Alfredo Di Stefano, Madrid.
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