False start for Benitez as Jese-James decision backfires

Real Madrid registered 27 shots in the goalless game at Sporting Gijon on Sunday night, but failed to create enough clear chances as the attack lacked both balance and cohesion

False start for Benitez as Jese-James decision backfires

It was not the start Rafa Benitez would have wanted. Real Madrid’s new coach spoke on Saturday of conceding fewer goals but also about entertainment and the players enjoying themselves. While they did keep a clean sheet in their first Liga game of the season on Sunday, there was nothing to celebrate in a disappointing draw that brought more questions than answers.

With Karim Benzema still sidelined through injury, Benitez opted to pick Jese as his striker against Sporting Gijon, with Gareth Bale behind in a free role, Cristiano Ronaldo on the left and Isco starting on the right while James Rodriguez had to be content with a place on the bench.

Last summer’s star signing is still catching up in terms of fitness after his exertions in the Copa America, but he should have started this one. Jese, for all his promise and obvious ability, is not a striker and it showed.

Madrid saw lots of the ball as expected but were imprecise with their passing around the area and did not create nearly enough clear-cut chances despite their 27 attempts on goal. Many of those were speculative or long-range efforts and statistics never tell the full story.

Bale was perhaps brighter than expected in the free role Benitez had spoken of on Saturday, but the Welshman was also erratic with his passing and missed one opportunity as he hit the side netting from a tight angle in the first half.

Meanwhile, Ronaldo was strangely subdued for the first hour, his most meaningful contribution a petulant penalty plea after tangling with Sporting’s Sergio Alvarez. There was definite contact, but the Portuguese went down theatrically in the area and the referee waved play on. He later missed a tap-in from point-blank range, but was adjudged to have been offside anyway.

Ronaldo’s rasping drive almost won it for Madrid in the closing stages, but was palmed over by goalkeeper Ivan Cuellar. And by then, Benitez had sent on James in place of Jese. Los Blancos looked more menacing and better balanced with the Colombian pulling the strings and Cristiano further forward. That was how they should have started the match.

Jese is a popular player and a real talent, but his best performances have always come out on the wing and playing him as the focal point in attack is an experiment that surely won’t last long on this evidence.

“We went for the game, but we were lacking the final pass,” Benitez said afterwards. “We had a lot of shots, but we lacked precision. We need to improve and we have to keep working. But I’m optimistic.”

It is early days of course and next up for Madrid is a match at home to another promoted side, Betis, at the Santiago Bernabeu next weekend.

“We have to make some adjustments,” Benitez added. “In order to get the best out of the players in attack, there needs to be certain freedom. But there was a lack of space.”

That’s nothing new and Madrid have struggled for years now to break down teams defending deep and squeezing spaces. Benitez had hoped to achieve that with the pace of Jese, but it backfired and he now needs to go back to the drawing board and find a solution fast.

For Barcelona, meanwhile, it was triumph through adversity as they beat Athletic Club at San Mames thanks to a Luis Suarez strike in the second half.

It was a slice of revenge for Luis Enrique’s side after losing the Spanish Supercopa to the Basques, but more importantly a vital victory with Gerard Pique out, Lionel Messi missing a penalty and both Dani Alves and Sergio Busquets taken off injured.

It was by no means vintage Barca, but it was clinical and it was effective in the end – and three valuable points were won.

If Benitez and Madrid are to challenge for La Liga this term, they will need some of those qualities too in the coming weeks and months. They already have some catching up to do.

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