For the second time in 10 days, Real Madrid is leaving Estadi Cornellà-El Prat with a 1-0 win, but whereas their victory on Jan. 10 left questions doubt about the team’s new setup, a controlling performance on the back of a five-goal league win carries a different connotation. Instead of feeding doubts, today’s first leg win in the Copa del Rey quarterfinals augurs well for next week’s reverse, the Merengues having taken a confident step toward the competition’s final four.
That confidence was evident in the 15th minute when Gareth Bale’s flick of an Álvaro Arbeloa cross found Karim Benzema at the far post, the French international giving the visitors a 1-0 lead. It was also apparent in the second half when lax play gave Javier Aguierre’s side two chances to craft late equalizers. For most of the night, however, that confidence manifest in a tacit control of play, with El Real out-passing Espanyol 588-420 while maintaining 58 percent of possession.
It also led to seven shots on target, though Kiko Casilla didn’t have to give a remarkable effort to keep six of them out. Seemingly content with their one-goal lead, Real Madrid took the foot off the gas in the second half (if they ever had it on), recording only eight of their 22 shots after intermission. Over the final half hour, particularly after Xabi Alonso replaced Ángel Di María, los Blancos appeared intent on preserving a 1-0 lead for next week’s second leg.
In that way, today’s match had a slightly different feel from the one two Sundays ago. Then, as Carlo Ancelotti switched his side to a 4-3-3, the team had yet to prove their tweaks would lead to a more dominant product on the field. Failing to put more than one goal past Espanyol, Real Madrid looked like the decent but still lacking product they’d been throughout the fall.
By Tuesday, coming off a 5-0 win at Real Betis on Saturday, some of those questions have been answered. With five different goal scorers in Seville, Real Madrid showed the potential for a more diverse, potentially more potent attack. Being able to consistently produce such performances remains a doubt, but in controlling today’s match in Catalonia, Real Madrid showed their new approach may yet plug some of their holes.
In the context of a two-leg tie, a measured, controlling performance at Espanyol could be seen as an extension of this weekend’s dominance, even if the scoreboard shows a more modest result.