By Alan Feehely.
A late Sergio Ramos penalty proved the difference in a thrilling clash on Saturday evening in Seville, as Real Madrid earned their first victory of the season through a 3-2 defeat of a much-improved Real Betis.
Madrid had opened their league campaign with a solid if unspectacular scoreless draw at Real Sociedad and will be happy to have secured the first win of their title defence after going into the half-time break a goal down.
Betis, in contrast, had won their first two games of the season and went into the game in second place, riding a wave of optimism.
After finishing last season in a disappointing 15th they appointed the experienced Manuel Pellegrini in the close season, and will be hoping to challenge for a European spot this time around.
Madrid took the lead in the 14th minute. Karim Benzema’s goals were pivotal to their title charge last season but he turned creator early on in Seville, turning Álex Moreno inside-out on the right flank before centring for Fede Valverde who finished well past the flailing Joel Robles.
Moments later, captain Ramos came close to doubling his team’s advantage — he had found himself deep in Betis territory after a characteristically marauding run from centre-back but his stabbed effort flashed wide.
Betis responded well. They had threatened early doors when Antonio Sanabria’s header was turned over the bar by an alert Thibaut Courtois, and they came close again on the 20-minute mark through Nabil Fekir. Sergio Canales had created space before feeding Joaquín, who in turn found the Frenchman, but his effort glanced wide of the post.
Their midfield was improved from last season. William Carvalho and Guido Rodríguez provided a solid foundation at the base, while the interchangeable attacking trident of Canales, Fekir and the evergreen Joaquín provided a creative flourish.
The Andalusians got their equaliser in the 35th minute. Joaquín’s short corner found Canales. The Spaniard steadied himself before whipping in an excellent ball for Aïssa Mandi to attack, with the defender’s header flying past Courtois in the Madrid goal.
Buoyed by their success, they got their noses in front two minutes later. Canales was again pivotal, this time spreading the play wide to Fekir who in turn found Carvalho, who had broken from deep. The Portuguese’s first touch opened up a shooting lane and he sent his effort past Courtois to score his second goal in two games.
Being the serial-winners that they are, Madrid didn’t falter to their host’s riposte. Three minutes after the second half began they had equalised.
— James Nalton (@JDNalton) September 26, 2020
Valverde, who was becoming increasingly important as the game progressed, played in the overlapping Dani Carvajal on the right wing, who in turn pulled the ball back for Benzema at the back post. Emerson, the Betis defender, got their first, and inadvertently directed the ball past his own goalkeeper to give the visitors their second.
Then, shortly on the hour, the game changed. Emerson earned a straight red card for a cynical takedown of Luka Jović, who had been bounding toward the Betis goal, leaving his team-mates a man short. Zinedine Zidane had changed the shape of his team at half time, introducing Luka Modrić and Isco in place of Toni Kroos and Martin Ødegaard, and with the extra man – combined with the sterling work of the tireless Valverde – the pair were content to show off an exquisite passing ability that was much to Betis’ detriment.
Madrid began to gain control of the game and their pressure came to a head in the final ten minutes. Marc Bartra was adjudged by VAR to have handled the ball inside the box, conceding a decisive penalty. Unsurprisingly, it was Ramos who stepped up to the plate to take it. A local boy — from Camas in Seville — and a product of the Sevilla youth system, he was always going to relish the opportunity to put his childhood rivals to the sword.
He made no mistake with the spot-kick – his audacious Panenka sealed his team’s first victory of the new campaign and put the rest of La Liga on notice that the champions are back.