Real Madrid rests stars, second string still rolls over Granada

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/james-rodríguez" data-ylk="slk:James Rodriguez">James Rodriguez</a> scored two goals in the first 11 minutes of <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/real-madrid/" data-ylk="slk:Real Madrid">Real Madrid</a>’s blowout win. (Getty)
James Rodriguez scored two goals in the first 11 minutes of Real Madrid’s blowout win. (Getty)

How comfortable is Real Madrid in the La Liga title race?

The league table paints a tense, pressure-filled picture. Los Blancos are level on points with Barcelona, and hold a game in hand, but also hold loads of pressure. They have three tricky games remaining. Barcelona, on the other hand, doesn’t look at all vulnerable to a slip-up.

But if Madrid’s 4-0 win over Granada on Saturday is any indication, the table is lying. The answer to the above question is “very.” Madrid is as comfortable as can be.

Not only did Real cruise to a four-goal lead inside 35 minutes, it did so with what was effectively a reserve team. Despite the pressure heaped on by Barcelona’s 4-1 win over Villarreal earlier in the day, and despite knowing that a loss would effectively hand the title to Barca, Zinedine Zidane made nine changes to the starting 11 that beat Atletico Madrid 3-0 in a Champions League semifinal first leg on Tuesday. He left Cristiano Ronaldo and others out of the matchday squad. And … well, it didn’t matter.

Part of the reason it didn’t matter is due to the preposterous depth of Madrid’s squad. Sure, Zidane rested Ronaldo. Sure, he rested Karim Benzema and Isco. Sure, he rested Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. But he brought in a front five of Alvaro Morata, Lucas Vazquez, Marco Asensio, James Rodriguez and Mateo Kovacic to replace them — an attacking quintet that the vast majority of clubs around Europe can only dream of, and an attacking quintet that tore up Granada in the first half.

Rodriguez set Madrid on its way with two goals in the first 11 minutes, the first scored with his thigh from a whole yard out, the second with his head in acres of space in the middle of the penalty box:

Morata got the latter two in the first 45 minutes. The first was an emphatic finish:

The second was a nice individual goal, perhaps aided by some shoddy defending:

Granada was no match for the Madrileños from kickoff straight through to the final whistle. The four goals didn’t even flatter Real. They could have had more. They miscued one-on-ones, hit posts and missed open nets. Casemiro, one of the two players retained from the midweek Champions League lineup, was guilty on one occasion:

The other regular starter chosen to ensure Madrid held serve in the title race was captain Sergio Ramos. But Ronaldo, Benzema, Isco, Modric, Kroos, Raphael Varane, Marcelo, Dani Carvajal and Keylor Navas were all left out of the 11. Morata, Vazquez, Asensio, Rodriguez, Kovacic, Danilo, Fabio Coentrao, Nacho and Kiko Casilla came into the team. Benzema and Isco came on as subs for what was nothing more than a high-intensity training session.

The rotation was startling given the must-win nature of the game, but Zidane had warned of it a day earlier. “With all the games that we have to play in, if we want to be in good form and be at a great physical level, then we have to rest players,” he said at his Friday news conference. “That’s it. It is a dialogue that we have. We have conversations about it.

“I have said before that I don’t want to be the coach that makes Cristiano sit out,” Zidane also said. “I speak to him and all the players a lot, and I know that at times players have to rest.”

So with Wednesday’s Champions League semifinal second leg looming, and with three tough La Liga games in quick succession after it, Zidane went with the second unit. And he did so with the knowledge that the gap between his second unit and the first unit of 19th-place Granada is almost embarrassingly vast.

Zidane’s decision paid off, as Madrid strolled to victory, and as Ronaldo and Co. rested up for the stretch run. Assuming Madrid can hold on to a 3-0 aggregate advantage on Wednesday, attention now shifts to its three remaining La Liga fixtures: vs. Sevilla, at Celta Vigo and at Malaga in a span of eight days. Seven points are needed for a first league crown since 2012.

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