After the all-round smiles of Roma in the Champions League, spirits were dampened with a Madrid performance that faded and a game that looked more likely to end in a draw as the clock ticked down. As the tie wore on the more worn Lopetegui’s side looked as Espanyol, with Rubi’s changes in the second half, took the initiative. Lopetegui had to shore things up in midfield through Casemiro and Llorente because his side was coming apart at the seams. Los Pericos’ best chance fell to Borja Iglesias, who took the ball off Sergio Ramos in one of those concentration-slips that have also become the centre-back's trademark, but saw his effort bounce back off the crossbar. Los Blancos survived the scare, but it was no more than they deserved.
The game, therefore, was resolved through Asensio’s strike, which referee Mateu Lahoz, VAR’s highest-profile referee (this was the fourth time in three matches he had called it into action) got tangled up in the moment – the linesman kept his flag down but Lahoz disallowed it for offside, despite being in a much worse position than his colleague. Fortunately VAR untangled him and the situation and the goal was rescued from no man’s land to stand. It was a reward for Madrid’s persistent first-half pressure against a mean and well-organised defence. But I stress the the word persistence, not the success or sharpness of the pressure because Madrid created very few clear chances.
Elsewhere in the game, Lopetegui’s rotations gave us a chance to see Odriozola, a player who will go down well in this stadium because he gives his all and can look after the ball. Ceballos also had another chance to show his worth and, more than any other player, has benefitted from a change of coach. One player who does seem to be off-colour is Lucas Vázquez, who had his moments but gives the impression that his role and importance to this side is significantly weaker than before. Mariano came on to smiles and applause but, apart from the odd bit of skill, didn’t really have the chance to shine in a period when Madrid were heading downwards. As a whole it was one of those evenings when the fans go away with three points and little else, and the flames and fire of Roma were reduced to smoke and embers.