Real Madrid manager Julen Lopetegui’s troubles picked up where they left off following the international break with a 2-1 defeat to Levante on Saturday afternoon at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid.
A club-record eight hours and one minute later, Los Blancos managed to break their goal-less drought through a Marcelo goal in the 72nd minute, but it came with Real on the wrong side of a 2-0 scoreline after a seventh minute goal from the excellent Jose Luis Morales and a penalty conversion from Roger in the 13th minute.
The defeat extends Real’s losing streak to three matches and their winless skid to five, surely making for an insufferable week for Lopetegui ahead of El Clasico against Barcelona next Sunday. Real could also call themselves dreadfully unlucky on the day, as they hit the woodwork three times. But full credit is also due to Levante, who played bravely by showing inventiveness in attack and full sacrifice in defence.
There were certainly some surprises in Lopetegui’s starting XI, beginning up top. Stalwarts Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale were nowhere to be found; instead it was a trio of Lucas Vazquez, Marco Asensio and Mariano. Isco also made a return to the starting line-up, while Dani Carvajal’s injury resulted in another start for Adrian Odriozola at right-back.
Levante made their intentions known early and often. Anytime the Frogs got ahold of the ball, they broke quickly on the counter-attack and inside the first 10 minutes they stunned the Bernabeu with a Morales goal to take a 0-1 lead. Sergio Postigo played an inch-perfect long ball over the top and Morales out-raced centre-back Raphael Varane and rounded hesitant goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois before hitting a strong finish to hand Levante a 0-1 lead.
Whistles dripping in disgust rained down on the white shirts from the home supporters, but things would only get worse minutes later. Varane’s early nightmare continued, as he was caught with a handball right on the outer edge of the area. Initially it was ruled a free kick, but VAR changed it correctly to a penalty and Roger converted the spot kick to make it a 0-2 Levante advantage.
VAR was back in the spotlight minutes, this time taking a Real goal off the crossbar. An Isco corner kick was met by the driving forehead of Casemiro, who thumped a header off the crossbar. The ball spun up in the air and fell for Asensio, who nodded in from a metre out, but amid the celebration VAR ruled that Asensio was offside and the Real scoreless streak continued.
It’s not like Real were playing poorly; Los Blancos were creating a good chunk of chances, it’s that just Lady Luck was on the side of the visitors. The crossbar came into play yet again on a corner kick, this time Mariano egging a header that slammed off the woodwork. The follow up header from Casemiro also flirted with the goal, but Levante goalkeeper Oier was there to shepherd it wide.
Real’s best chances were coming off corner kick and Lucas Vazquez had it all there to snag a goal before half-time when he found himself all alone at the back post with Oier just three metres in front, but incredibly the Levante No.1 made the stop. Levante remained a threat on the counter and thought they had a third through Ruben Rochina, but VAR confirmed that Tono offside by just a hair when receiving a pass on the build-up.
Lopetegui had no other choice but to turn to his bench to spark the attack, so Bale was summoned at the break to start the second stanza in place of Odriozola. But the Welshman had little impact, and so Benzema and Dani Ceballos were called on at the hour mark to replace Isco and Asensio, respectively.
For the final half-hour it was one-way traffic, with Levante pegged back in their own area. Oier was called on to make a diving save of a Bale free-kick, but minutes later the Levante stopper could do nothing to stop an absolute bullet from Marcelo, who took a pass from Benzema and hammered home to snap Real’s goalless streak at 481 minutes and made it 1-2.
The momentum was all with Real, and for a third time the woodwork had to come to Levante’s rescue when the post denied a curling right-footer from Benzema. It all made for a nervy final 10 minutes for fans on both sides: Real launching attack after attack against a Levante defence clinging to a one-goal advantage that few would have predicted. Mariano thought he had the equaliser after an Oier save on a Benzema header, but the Dominican was ruled offside. In the end, Levante held strong, leaving Real in a much deeper crisis than 90 minutes prior.
1.- Real Madrid: Courtois; Odriozola (Bale, min. 46), Varane, Ramos, Marcelo; Casemiro, Modric, Isco (Benzema, min. 60); Lucas, Asensio (Ceballos, min. 60), Mariano.
2.- Levante: Oier; Jason, Cabaco, Postigo, Pier, Tono; Campana, Bardhi, Rochina (Doukoure, min. 67); Roger (Boateng, min. 79), Morales.
Goals: 0-1, min. 7: Morales; 0-2, min. 13: Roger (p); 1-2, min. 72: Marcelo
Referee: Cuadra Fernandez (Baleares). Yellow Cards: Cabaco (Min. 53) for Levante, Marcelo (Min. 94) for Real Madrid. Red cards: None
Stadium: Santiago Bernabeu