Zinedine Zidane brought Real Madrid’s outcasts in from the cold and they repaid him with a win in his first game back as Isco and Gareth Bale each scored in a 2-0 victory over Celta Vigo on Saturday.
Isco had not started a single La Liga game under Santiago Solari but opened the scoring here shortly after the hour, before Bale got the goal his own committed display deserved to put sorry Celta out of sight.
Bale was teed up by Marcelo, who was also dropped by Solari but recalled, while Keylor Navas pulled off a superb save in the first half, having been brought back ahead of Thibaut Courtois.
Even Marco Asensio has been almost anonymous through Madrid’s troubles this season and he seemed rejuvenated too, his weaving run leading to the opener from Isco, who was otherwise the quietest of Zidane’s recovering group.
The victory ends a run of four consecutive home defeats and means Madrid reduce the gap to nine points behind Barcelona, who play away at Real Betis on Sunday.
That deficit will surely prove too big to close but Zidane’s job is to restore morale in the 11 league games that are left and to find out what, and who, needs changing in the summer.
At times, this felt like a pre-season fixture, not just because of the baking hot sun but the relaxed atmosphere and the sense this is now a team on trial.
Bale, whose relationship with Zidane deteriorated to breaking point last season, was arguably the biggest winner, his performance proving there could yet be a place for him in what the club’s president Florentino Perez has dubbed “the glorious new era”.
Marcelo impressed too while Courtois might well wonder what his next couple of months hold, given Navas, an old favourite of Zidane, looks to be back in favour.
Zidane had enjoyed his press conference on Friday, joking with journalists about their changed hairstyles and smirking as he admitted he had given the same answers before.
– Bale rattles crossbar –
There was a cosy feeling at the Santiago Bernabeu too, where fans had a new song to the tune of ‘Hey Jude’, replaced by ‘Zizou’, and cheered their new coach’s name when it was announced before kick-off.
Bale came closest to scoring in the first half with an acrobatic scissor-kick that crashed against the crossbar and later teed up Karim Benzema to tap in, only for the referee to book the Welshman for a foul in the build-up.
In between, Madrid were rather muted, but dominant in possession. Marcelo pulled back for Isco, who slipped, and then watched his fizzing shot from distance pushed away by Ruben Blanco.
Toni Kroos’ effort grazed the roof of the net and from a corner, Sergio Ramos headed wide.
Celta found chances on the break but never looked liked converting. Maxi Gomez, with only Ramos to beat, curled wide while Sofiane Boufal’s finish had to be blocked on the line by Marcelo as Madrid were again caught upfield.
Benzema’s goal was ruled out just before half-time and Luka Modric had one chalked off just after, this time VAR intervening to show Raphael Varane offside and close enough to be deemed active.
Isco’s influence had diminished and Dani Ceballos was ready to replace him just before he scored the opening goal. Asensio made it, a superb run allowing Benzema to cross and Isco to bundle in.
There was still time for Bale to add a second, his touch making space for the shot after Marcelo had slipped him clear. The ball clipped the post and rolled in.