Relief was the overwhelming emotion for Real Madrid as the final whistle blew at Mendizorroza, the raucous home of struggling Alavés. Zinedine Zidane’s team secured three points, but failed to allay concerns about a stuttering start to their title defence.
Dani Ceballos scored the first two goals of his Madrid career, either side of a well-worked equaliser scored by Alavés captain Manu García. The 21-year-old excelled in his first start in a white shirt.
The managerial pressure gauge had been flickering over Zidane following Madrid’s 0-1 loss to Real Betis at the Bernabéu on Wednesday evening. Tonny Sanabria’s last-gasp winner meant that Real Madrid had failed to win any of their first three home matches in LaLiga for the first time in 22 years, and Barcelona extended their advantage over Los Blancos to seven points.
Zidane responded to that blow by shuffling his team selection. Gareth Bale and Luka Modric dropped to the bench in Vitoria, with Dani Ceballos stepping in to the midfield alongside Casemiro and Isco.
Alavés were the ideal opponents. Five matches played, five matches lost, zero goals scored. The Basque’s start to the season made for damning reading.
It took ten minutes for Ceballos to find the net. He gather Isco’s cut-back on the edge of the box, bumped off a challenge from a blue-and-white shirt, and slammed the ball in to the bottom corner. The match appeared to be following the script.
Alavés tore it up as the match approached half time. Former-Real Madrid Castilla winger Burgui strode through the midfield and passed to Munir on the right flank. The attacker, on-loan from Barcelona, did his parent club a favour as he delivered a pinpoint cross for Manu García to head in off the underside of the bar. It was a fine attacking move that begged the question of why it was Alavés first goal of the season. And the goal-scorer could not have been more fitting. García, the club-captain and El Glorioso fan, has his name etched in to the Alavés shirt that the club wore in the latter stages of the 2001 UEFA Cup. Back then he was a young boy supporting his local team. Now, he drives them forward.
But the lead did not last for long. Ceballos had his second goal three minutes later. Goalkeeper Fernando Pacheco flapped at Dani Carvajal’s cross, and directed it straight in to the path of Madrid’s No. 24. With the ‘keeper out of position, Ceballos slid the ball in to the bottom corner and bounded away to Madrid’s cluster of travelling supporters.
The second half was frustrating for Madrid from the off. In the 47th minute, Cristiano Ronaldo hit the outside of the near post after controlling Isco’s sumptuous diagonal pass. It was not the first time that 32-year-old struck the woodwork in Mendizorroza, and none of his six shots led to his first LaLiga goal of the season.
The chances continued to come, and go. Isco squandered a one-on-one after springing the offside trap to meet Raphael Varane’s long pass. Alavés created several chances on the break, with substitute Pedraza twice hitting the woodwork for the home side. The Alavés players were competitive and dogged, sometimes too much so. Manu García was lucky to avoid a red card for a malevolent elbow to the cheek of Lucas Vazquez.
Madrid’s profligate streak rumbles on. Their 20 shots led to just two goals, continuing the pattern established in the home matches against Levante and Real Betis. Something doesn’t feel quite right with Madrid, as if the wheels of a train are not quite sitting flush on the tracks. They close the gap on Barcelona to four points, at least until the table-toppers face Girona later on Saturday evening, but are yet to find their rhythm.