1. Crisis averted with two Madrid wins in three days
Real Madrid went into this week on the brink of a crisis after defeats to Villarreal in LaLiga and Barcelona in the Spanish Supercopa threatened to derail their season. Those results, and the way the team was playing, made this run of games -- away at Villarreal in the Copa del Rey, away at Athletic Club and then at home to Real Sociedad in LaLiga -- feel like make-or-break for the team's season and even the long-term future of coach Carlo Ancelotti.
Two of those matches have now been played, and with this 2-0 victory at San Mames and Thursday's 3-2 win at Villarreal, Madrid are back on track.
The two games have been very different -- the Villarreal game was a rollercoaster comeback and this was a matter-of-fact win, with some backs-to-the-wall defending -- but the end result is that Madrid can now face what comes next, starting with a Copa quarterfinal derby against Atletico Madrid, with confidence.
Of course, all of Madrid's problems haven't magically gone away. There are question marks over the solidity of the defence, important players like David Alaba and Aurelien Tchouameni are still out injured and star forward Vinicius Junior isn't quite at his electric best.
Ancelotti always insisted that this team of proven winners would come out of their rough patch sooner rather than later, and on this evidence he was right.
2. Modric and Kroos benched in midfield shake-up
Madrid have often opted to rest either Luka Modric, 37, or Kroos, 33, this season as the gradual generational shift towards youngsters Tchouameni, Eduardo Camavinga and Valverde continues. But this was the first time that Ancelotti had left both Modric and Kroos on the bench in LaLiga since the Italian returned to the club in the summer of 2021.
Modric has looked tired in recent weeks -- Ancelotti has admitted the Croatian hasn't been at his best post-World Cup -- while Madrid's comeback at Villarreal on Thursday was kickstarted by Kroos being taken off. Dani Ceballos replaced him and played a part in all three goals that night, scoring the late winner, and was deservedly rewarded with a start here at San Mames.
Ceballos wasn't as influential here -- that consistent inconsistency has been a long-term issue for the midfielder -- but alongside him, Camavinga put in an impressive performance as Madrid's deepest lying midfielder. The France international has had to deal with some growing pains over the last two seasons, often hauled off early by Ancelotti, but there's no doubting his potential and here he was excellent.
Kroos, meanwhile, gave a reminder that he can't be written off yet with his late goal off the bench after coming on in the 85th minute. It was the kind of finish -- taken first time from the edge of the box -- that we've seen the German score time and time again.
3. Muniain's absence leaves Athletic lacking creative spark
You're reluctant to question a coach as experienced, successful and likeable as Athletic Club's Ernesto Valverde -- this is a man who won LaLiga twice with Barcelona and has done a good job in Bilbao -- but it's hard to understand the benching of a player who was previously Athletic's creative fulcrum, Iker Muniain.
Valverde has said that he wanted to add solidity in midfield, picking a double pivot and sacrificing club captain Muniain to retain promising youngster Oihan Sancet as a sole attacking midfielder. The result is a team full of attacking pace with the Williams brothers up front but lacking the guile behind them to make the most of their talents.
It's a puzzle how to fit Muniain, Sancet and Nico and Inaki Williams into the same team -- especially if Valverde is reluctant to start Muniain out wide -- but it's perhaps one that it's worth taking another look at.
Best and worst performers
Best: Karim Benzema, Real Madrid
Made his goal look deceptively easy, with the ball behind him on his weaker left foot. Combined with Valverde to set up Asensio in the second half.
Best: Eduardo Camavinga, Real Madrid
Enjoyed himself in a more central, deeper midfield role.
Best: Eder Militao, Real Madrid
On nights like this his combination of strength, pace and technique make him look near-impossible to beat.
Worst: Unai Simon, Athletic Club
Often looks overconfident with the ball at his feet. Beaten comfortably by Benzema and Kroos.
Worst: Dani Ceballos, Real Madrid
Didn't have a terrible game by any means, but a long way off his level at Villarreal three days earlier.
Worst: Oihan Sancet, Athletic Club
A really exciting and talented player but had a quiet night. Subbed off midway through the second half.
Highlights and notable moments
Karim Benzema put Real Madrid ahead with a gorgeous left-footed volley in which he had to swivel around to get a square hit on the ball and fire past goalkeeper Unai Simón.
Toni Kroos added another for Real Madrid in the 90th minute.
BENZEMA LEFT FOOT VOLLEY! 🤯 pic.twitter.com/6UukPzq5xI— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) January 22, 2023
Vintage curler from Toni Kroos! 🔥 pic.twitter.com/Kkcpov3hfD— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) January 22, 2023
After the match: What the managers and players said
Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti on whether it was a risk to bench Luka Modric and Toni Kroos to start the game: "A risk, no, I don't think so. It's a moment of the season where it's important to have more players motivated. It's a demanding moment -- [Dani] Ceballos and [Marco] Asensio with what they did against Villarreal deserved it, Toni [Kroos] has played every game and maybe a rest is good for him. Luka [Modric] could have played but I chose this and it went well."
Ancelotti on correcting past problems: "I think the analysis we did, when the games didn't go well, was correct. We didn't defend well. Today we defended well, you have to suffer above all here at Athletic, they're a good team. We went ahead early and then had a compact defence, the team had a collective commitment they haven't had in recent games."
Real Madrid defender Nacho on the result: "Super important. Every game is a final right now, we're behind the leaders, Barcelona had won earlier, so it was fundamental [to win]."
Athletic Club forward Inaki Williams on the result: "We tried everything. We lacked a bit of luck. We were playing well, in the first and second half, Real Madrid didn't feel comfortable but that's what Madrid do, when you're on top, they can finish you off. The 0-2 isn't fair but there's no time to think about that. We have an important game [in the cup] on Thursday."
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information research)
Real Madrid now have a 15-game unbeaten streak vs. Athletic Club in LaLiga (11-0-4 W-L-D) -- the longest LaLiga unbeaten streak in head-to-head series history.
Karim Benzema now has 228 career goals in LaLiga; passes Alfredo Di Stéfano (227) and ties Raúl González (228) for 5th on the all-time LaLiga top scorers list
Karim Benzema sets a new career-high with six-game scoring streak on the road in LaLiga.
With his goal today, over half of Toni Kroos' career LaLiga goals have come from outside the box (11 of 21).
Athletic Club: Bilbao head to Valencia for the Spanish Copa del Rey on Thursday, Jan. 26 (watch live on ESPN+ at 2 p.m. ET). Then, they visit Celta Vigo on Sunday, Jan. 29 for LaLiga action (watch live on ESPN+ at 12:30 p.m. ET).
Real Madrid: Los Blancos face crosstown rival Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey on Thursday, Jan. 26 (watch live on ESPN+ at 3 p.m. ET). Then Real Madrid host Real Sociedad on Sunday, Jan. 29 (watch live on ESPN+ at 3 p.m. ET).