Real Madrid fans were in a buoyant mood before their kick-off on Saturday. Earlier in the day, Barcelona had lost at Levante and a win at home to Real Betis would see Los Blancos move into a two-point lead at the top of La Liga.
But as they left the stadium later on Saturday, their mood changed to frustration for those supporters. Barca’s 3-1 defeat in Valencia had handed Zinedine Zidane’s side an opportunity, but it was not taken as Betis defended in numbers and earned a 0-0 draw at the Santiago Bernabeu.
It had not been a bad performance from Madrid. Zidane’s side created chances and on another day, they would have won comfortably. Eden Hazard’s early strike was ruled out by the finest of margins as VAR intervened. Goalkeeper Joel Robles made a number of fine saves and a different referee may have awarded a penalty for Zou Feddal’s late handball in the box.
That incident dominated much of the post-match press conference, but Zidane was not interested in looking for excuses and nor should he be.
Feddal’s hand had blocked Karim Benzema’s cross, but the Betis defender was falling and his arm was not in an unnatural position. It could easily have been a penalty. Or not. It was down to the officials’ interpretation and this one went Betis’ way.
But it was the right decision and the real concern for Zidane will be that his side were unable to break down a defensive Betis outfit and secure the three points they needed to return to the top of La Liga.
Ferland Mendy, in for Marcelo at left-back, missed probably the best chance of the lot as he ran through in the second half and fired wide. The Frenchman should have scored but ultimately, that responsibility is with the forwards and they were unable to deliver.
With Gareth Bale out injured, Rodrygo had a good game on the right and Vinicius Junior also impressed in his place as Madrid frantically sought a winner later in the game. But both of them are works in progress and Real cannot be reliant upon two teenagers to solve their attacking problems.
Hazard had a better night and was unlucky with his strike, while Benzema worked hard to create openings for others but found opportunities few and far between, apart from one early effort which forced Joel into a smart save.
In midfield, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric were reunited again, but Madrid missed the dynamism of Fede Valverde and have very quickly come to depend upon the 21-year-old Uruguayan’s drive and determination in the centre of the park.
“All that was missing was a goal,” Zidane said. And he was right but, along with preventing them, scoring is the most important aspect of football.
It was put to the Frenchman that Madrid could have been league leaders. “We are leaders,” he said as per Marca although Barcelona remain first on goal difference and in reality, Real had wasted the chance to go top in their own right.
“We are not doing badly. We have dropped two points, but playing like that, it doesn’t matter.”
There is nothing wrong with his optimism, but performances do not win titles and at the end of the season, those two points might have made a difference.
Barcelona have now lost three times in La Liga this term, which is exactly the amount of league defeats the Catalans suffered in the whole of last season. The champions have been unusually inconsistent and also started the season without their best player as Lionel Messi missed the first few games through injury.
Yet still, Madrid have been unable to take advantage. At the moment, it is tight at the top with Atletico and Sevilla just a point back after they shared a 1-1 draw at the Sanchez Pizjuan on Saturday, but La Liga was evenly balanced this time last year too until Barcelona pulled away after a shaky start.
The Catalans are likely to improve again and given Real’s recent record in the Clasico, it is imperative they win games like the one on Saturday. Instead, Zidane’s side have picked up just four points from a possible nine in their last three league games (Skysports).
Despite the positive performance on Saturday, Los Blancos continue to lack a killer instinct and ultimately that could be what costs them the title in May.