To borrow a line from Meatloaf, two out of three ain’t bad for Real Madrid.
With a 2-1 triumph over Barcelona, Zinedine Zidane’s side take over at the top of the table. Their stay at the LaLiga summit could only last 24 hours – long-time leaders and noisy neighbours Atletico can go back above them if they take a point from their game in hand – but, make no mistake, Los Blancos are in the thick of a three-way title race.
A Clasico win – meaning they have won both league meetings in a campaign for the first time since 2007-08 – followed on from a 3-1 result against Liverpool in the Champions League. A season-defining run of fixtures has gone well so far, with just the small matter of a trip to Anfield to come.
Just like in their midweek success in European action, Madrid scored twice before half-time to seize control. Barca will rue the deflection on Toni Kroos’ free-kick that doubled the advantage, but they were undone for the opener by an audacious finish that capped a flowing attack.
Karim Benzema’s 13th-minute goal continued a hot streak for a striker who keeps on scoring while seemingly waiting to see which rival will turn up to try and take his job.
His back-heeled finish to beat Marc-Andre ter Stegen at the near post made it seven league games in a row where he has found the net. He becomes the fourth player for the club to manage such a streak in LaLiga: Cristiano Ronaldo achieved the feat four times, while Ruud van Nistelrooy (2007) and Gareth Bale (2018) are the other names on the list.
Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland have been heavily linked with Madrid, but Benzema remains the man right now.
Since Ronaldo departed the club in 2018, the Frenchman has stepped up to become the focal point in the front line. He has scored 21 LaLiga goals in each of the previous two seasons, while this term he is already up to 19. With plenty of games remaining, his career-best tally of 24, managed in 2015-16 despite making just 27 appearances, is well within his sights.
If Madrid were to retain their title, his role was always going to be significant, despite the transfer speculation. Hopes of a second successive crown appeared distant, however, when they suffered a 2-1 defeat to Levante on January 30, at which stage the champions sat seven points behind Atleti, who also had two games in hand.
Eder Militao was sent off in that Levante loss, dismissed after just eight minutes and 12 seconds. It was a short-lived third start in LaLiga this term, while the Brazilian defender had also been in the Madrid team that suffered a shock Copa del Rey exit to Alcoyano 10 days earlier.
The big-money signing from Porto in 2019 had yet to convince in the Spanish capital, to put it nicely.
His role may have remained as someone on the periphery of the first-team picture, too, had Zidane not suddenly been faced with a shortage of options to line up at the heart of his defence. However, with captain Sergio Ramos again sidelined and Raphael Varane self-isolating after testing positive for COVID-19, Militao stepped up to show his value during a critical stretch for his club.
The centre-back made a game-high six clearances on Saturday, as well as three blocks. Forget the heavy rain that beseiged Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano throughout the second half; a Barca tide came his way, yet – alongside Nacho – he made sure Madrid did not go under.
Just like against Liverpool, the makeshift pairing defied expectations (albeit the bar was perhaps set low). A potential point of weakness has instead helped fortify the team, with a partnership born out of necessity helping to change the outlook ahead of the run-in. If they can do something similar in the second leg with Jurgen Klopp’s side on Wednesday, a double remains distinctly doable.
Perhaps, too, Militao has shown that there can be life after Ramos, whose contract is fast running out at Madrid, just as there has been since Ronaldo said his farewells and headed for Turin.