After stepping out and boldly declaring ‘If the rest of my team-mates were at my level, we’d be first,’ Cristiano Ronaldo needed to back his words up with actions against Levante, to speak on the pitch, not just the mixed zone.
He duly did, scoring Madrid’s first and creating the third for Isco, but this was not a convincing team performance at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium from Zinedine Zidane’s men.
Crisis headlines were avoided and Madrid deserved victory, but even considering the suspensions and injuries that forced them to put out a weakened first XI, anything other than a win would have been unthinkable.
These are stressful times for Los Blancos, but Zidane will be given a stay of execution, as he should be, with the aim of reshaping the squad in the summer.
This was already a very different XI to normal though, with six usual starters missing in Gareth Bale, Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal, Luka Modric and Karim Benzema.
It meant opportunities for hungry players, with 18-year-old La Fabrica graduate Borja Mayoral starting up front and Lucas Vazquez on the right wing. On the left was Ronaldo, with the rift from his comments at the weekend papered over ahead of this clash.
The first half was relatively uneventful until Madrid broke the deadlock. A couple of low tame shots by Ronaldo and Giuseppe Rossi were exchanged, but the first substantial play saw Lucas Orban, on loan from Valencia, trip his Madrid namesake Vazquez in the box.
Ronaldo drilled the penalty home expertly, into the bottom left corner, before jumping into the air and unleashing his trademark ‘Siiiiii’ celebration, in front of the furious Levante ultras.
Four minutes later, Madrid doubled their lead, this time through a combination of Mayoral and unfortunate goalkeeper Diego Marino. The young forward fired towards goal from the edge of the box, with his strike bouncing back off the post, hitting the goalkeeper and crossing the line.
Marino tried to claw it out, but it had clearly gone over and the goal was called. Along with Carlos Kameni’s own goal for Malaga against Valencia, this was the first time two goalkeepers had scored an own goal on the same day since January 1969.
Levante, bottom of the table, could have caved, but instead they hit back immediately. A long ball from the back was won by Deyverson, beating Pepe in the air and nodding it back to Rossi.
The striker held the ball up brilliantly, keeping it away from Casemiro, Raphael Varane and Pepe, before flicking it back to Deyverson, who had sat down, stood up and found some space.
The Brazilian fired past Keylor Navas, featuring against his former side, to cut Madrid’s lead in half.
This was the kind of defending that shows why Madrid have only managed to keep just three clean sheets in their last 19 league matches.
James Rodriguez arced a beautiful strike inches wide of Marino’s goal early in the second half, before Nacho hit one from distance which the stopper dealt with well, tipping it behind for a corner.
Despite being whistled at the Santiago Bernabeu after he was substituted in the 1-0 defeat by Atletico on Saturday, James was one of the more lively performers here, clipping a fine ball through for Ronaldo, who struck the post. ‘Siiiiii’ mocked the Levante fans, imitating Ronaldo’s oft-discussed goal celebration noise.
At the other end Navas was alert to palm Ruben’s long-range effort behind for a corner, which too was nearly turned home. ‘Yes we can,’ chanted Levante fans, but they couldn’t.
It was Madrid who got the game’s final goal, Ronaldo unselfishly cutting back for Isco to fire home, giving the scoreline a sheen Madrid barely deserved.
While Zidane admitted at the weekend that his team’s title hopes are over, the aim must be to finish above city rivals Atletico, while truly targeting the Champions League.
Both Vazquez and Mayoral impressed and we will be seeing a lot more of them over the coming weeks, but Madrid clearly miss Gareth Bale.
Despite not finding his best form at the club, the Welshman offers the directness that Madrid could have used to kill this game off, instead of allowing Levante to cling on to the hope they could equalise until stoppage time.