Real Madrid, Ronaldo and Benzema bust out of their slumps, advance in Champions League

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(Yahoo Sport)
(Yahoo Sport)

As it turns out, the medicine for Real Madrid’s slump was hidden among the hopelessly disjointed back line run out in Cyprus by APOEL Nicosia.

Real had made a halting start to the campaign. Last season, it won its second Champions League trophy in a row — which had never been done before in the modern iteration of the tournament — and third in four years. And it had ended its half-decade-long La Liga title drought. At the beginning of the year, things looked bright, with the club seemingly pivoting from its longstanding Galacticos policy to a cleverly assembled crop of young Spaniards. 

But after winning just two of their first five league games, Real seemed to have turned a corner, claiming four victories in a row. Yet over its last half dozen games in all competitions, Zinedine Zidane’s men went 2-2-2. The French manager, not quite two years into his first senior team job, was already coming under fire, in spite of two Champions League titles in just a season and a half. Because Real had slipped 10 points behind an unstoppable Barcelona after 12 league games, not even a third of the way through the season.

Barca, for that matter, had not imploded, as predicted in the wake of Neymar’s shock summer departure to Paris Saint-Germain — a notion suggested anew when Real hammered the Catalans 5-1 on aggregate in the Supercopa de Espana. Under Ernesto Valverde, Barca has dropped just four points in all competitions, and has yet to lose.

Things were suddenly looking bleak in the Spanish capital.

Tuesday brought relief. APOEL, which had bravely kept Borussia Dortmund to ties in its last two European contests, capitulated completely to a rejuvenated Real team in a straightforward 6-0 drubbing.

After a pensive start, Luka Modric sent Real on its way with an inspired volley in the 23rd minute. The ball was cleared right to the veteran Croatian playmaker outside the box, in an acre of space. He hit it sweetly, sending the ball past the diving Nauzet Perez, who couldn’t handle the tricky skip.

After Modric was denied a penalty, his peers put the game away before halftime. Karim Benzema finally got his first goal of the European campaign — and just his third of the season — when he applied a clinical finish to a lovely combination from Toni Kroos and Cristiano Ronaldo to set him up.


In the 41st minute, Nacho got a touch on the headed ball from Raphael Varane on a corner to make it three.

And in injury time before the intermission, a Real counter-attack resulted in the simplest of tap-ins for Benzema, on the selfless pass from Ronaldo.

The rout was on.

But Real demurred on running the score up much further, settling for two more goals before the hour. Just after the break, Marcelo’s sharp cross was headed home by Ronaldo in spite of a challenge that knocked him down.

And in a fit of shambolic APOEL defending, Ronaldo was allowed to spin the ball into an empty net.

Real could have run the score up further, but didn’t seem all that bothered when its attempts stranded on the stout Perez. It had made its point. And it had assured, for that matter, its place in the round of 16 with a game to spare — even though Tottenham Hotspur won the group outright, likely giving Real a trickier draw in the next round.

A third straight Champions League title — and a fourth in five years — is still in play. And given the way things had been going, that’s all Real could really ask for. Now follow league games against underperforming Malaga and Athletic Bilbao, followed by Sevilla, Leganes and the first Clasico of the league season with Barca. Barca, for that matter, faces two top-six teams in its next three games — Valencia and Villareal.

If there is to be a revival in Real’s league season, a confidence-rebuilding 6-0 win on the road in the Champions League isn’t a bad way to begin it. There is much ground to be made up. But then there’s also a good deal more depth in Real’s team than there is in Barca’s. That will start mattering soon, as the season drags into the winter. And as three injured starters — winger Gareth Bale, goalkeeper Keylor Navas and defender Sergio Ramos — make their return to the starting lineup.

Meanwhile, Ronaldo and Benzema, who had an unfathomably paltry two league goals between them going into the game, combined for four goals on the night. Against meek opposition, yes, but once the goals start coming, they tend to build momentum regardless of the opponent.

There are green shoots again in Real Madrid’s season.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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