Real Madrid are in crisis, they said. They are also joint top of the table. Four days after being defeated in Paris against a PSG side without the three superstars who define them, unable to muster up a single shot on target for the first time in a decade, Zinedine Zidane responded by doing something that even he had never done before: he took a team to Seville and won at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán.
On Saturday the coach said that, if some people were to be believed, he was already out. On Sunday a Karim Benzema header relieved the pressure and secured Madrid’s first victory here in five years. It also took them ahead of their opponents, the league’s early leaders.
Ahead of everyone else too, except Athletic Bilbao. A single moment was enough in a game where European exertion could be seen more than quality football, though from a team Zidane had accused of a lack of intensity there was no shortage of effort and that will come as comfort for him. It may be only week six, but this mattered. And this is not a result anyone has come to expect lately. This is a place Madrid have come to be beaten.
Here they resisted. To start with they had to. Yet by the end it was all Sevilla could do to stay on their feet until the final whistle. Even when they got what they thought was a late, late equaliser, ruled out for offside, it was as if they knew this had already gone. There was no energy for drama. It had all been spent early, to no avail.
The first dangerous ball of a game that had surprisingly few of them was swung in from Jesús Navas after five minutes, seeking Luuk de Jong at the far post. As Thibaut Courtois stood watching, rooted to his line, Raphaël Varane blocked. He did so with his arm but it was at his side and the appeals were short. Five minutes later Lucas Ocampos launched into an overhead kick that was as optimistic as the home supporters, busy belting out the songs, had been. Not without reason: Sevilla had won the last four meetings between these two sides here and this was a bright start, fast and intense, the ball mostly theirs.
On the right Jesús Navas belies his years. On the left Sergio Reguilón was busy. And, freed by Fernando and Joan Jordán, Éver Banega was in possession often. The man whose brain seems to work at a different speed from the rest added the vision to go with the velocity, a little clarity amid the acceleration and the noise. But while Sevilla had conceded only one goal in five games this season, they had scored only five and productivity again evaded them. So, in fact, did any real presence in the penalty area. Up front was De Jong, prolific at PSV but who did not score in 12 games at Newcastle.
Moreover, as they pressed, the space occasionally opened for Madrid. The long ball to the right for Gareth Bale was one escape valve to exploit, although rob-and-run always looked the most likely route to goal, and so it proved. Half an hour passed without either keeper having to make a save. When at last one did, it was Tomas Vaclik. Fernando lost out and there was Benzema, feet fast, to slot into the run of Eden Hazard. Uninvolved until then, Hazard reached the six-yard box but Sevilla’s keeper blocked.
Four minutes later Dani Carvajal was closing down in the middle. He carried on his run into space as Benzema and James combined cleverly to release him clean through on the right.Vaclik again saved the shot. It was the seventh he has faced this season; he had saved six of them.
He could not save the eighth. As the second half went on, this felt increasingly like a match to be decided by a single moment and possibly a mistake. Tiredness appeared to take them – Madrid had been in Paris on Wednesday night, Sevilla did not get back from Azerbaijan until 6am on Friday. Scrappy imprecision was standard. With this much talent on the pitch there was always the chance something would happen, though. And when Jordán, exhausted, lost the ball just after the hour, it did.
Bale and Carvajal combined and the full-back delivered a superb cross from the right for Benzema to head home. For a moment the place fell quiet – and that is saying something. Sevilla carried the ball forward, it is true, but there was something missing; spark, intent, speed, something different. Ocampos delivered a series of crosses from the right, his best reaching De Jong, whose header drifted well wide. His next cross passed through an empty area, frustration growing from the fans.
Nolito and Chicharito Hernández had been introduced as Sevilla sought something, anything. They combined to get past Courtois, the ball dribbling between his legs. The roar, though, did not last long. On the right the linesman’s flag was up. And time, too, nearly was.