Unlike Bale, most of them welcomed the decision to sack Rafa Benítez on Monday but his disappointment did not last long. It certainly did not show on the pitch where the Welshman scored a hat-trick in this victory against Deportivo de La Coruña, departing to a standing ovation with a quarter of an hour to go.
He was not alone; applause was the soundtrack of the night, the whistles of recent weeks gone. Five days can be a long time in football, especially when there is such a hurry to forget the past.
On Monday night Zidane’s family occupied seats in the front row of the Bernabéu press room before Benítez’s sacking had even been officially announced; on Saturday night he occupied his place on the edge of the technical area where he saw Karim Benzema’s first goal put his team on course and his second goal round off a perfect debut. Between those two Bale scored three.
“Gareth can be very happy about what he did tonight. It is not easy to score three goals,” Zidane said. So what now? “Continue like this.”
As an exercise in changing the atmosphere, maybe even in political survival, Zidane’s arrival had already proven an instant success; the doubt was whether it would be a lasting one. Or even if it would last beyond the first game. It did. At times, Madrid were impressive here, a dynamism and enthusiasm about their play that had been absent of late. “We played the ball well and created chances,” Zidane said. “We will improve, too. I’ve only just arrived; you have to give us time.”
Time is rarely given here, but he will anticipate more of it than his predecessor got. Pushed aside without a word, Benítez barely got a goodbye on Monday. Treated as if he had never even been there, no explanation offered and no time spent lamenting his departure or justifying its arrival only 13 days after the president, Florentino Pérez had insisted: “Zidane will not replace Benítez.” His sacking was, rather, the tiniest prelude to introducing Zidane; there was celebration, not contrition.
Here, that continued. Zidane shirts were on sale in the club shop and when his name was announced a huge roar greeted it, followed by applause. The mention of Benítez’s had been whistled weekly since the clásico. Many of the players felt the same way – Bale’s disappointment was not widely shared – and Zidane’s arrival changed the atmosphere. It also left them without an excuse to hide behind.
As for Bale, Zidane promised that he would give him the same “affection” that Benítez had. He certainly had freedom of movement, coming inside from the right to great effect: all three goals were scored in a striker’s position, fears of an “exile” on the wing unfounded.
Zidane’s first team was a 4-3-3 with Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Isco in midfield, although the latter – returning after only 12 minutes in the last six league games – was often close to the front three, heading left and leaving Modric and Kroos behind. Up front were Bale, Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, as Zidane had promised. At the back, Dani Carvajal replaced Danilo.
Madrid led on the quarter-hour when Sergio Ramos’s volley from a corner was flicked in by Benzema. Until then Deportivo had been dangerous, Lucas Pérez just missing a cross from Fede Cartabia, while Madrid momentarily exhibited familiar flaws. The disconnect between the front three and the rest was reduced but Deportivo moved the ball well, encountering time and space. Pérez sliced one over, then took on two shots in a minute.
But Madrid were growing and they, and the fans, enjoyed this. At times the football was impressive: quick and offensive. Ronaldo cut inside and shot wide before Bale made it 2-0, heading in Carvajal’s cross.
Bale then clipped a lovely ball to Ronaldo which he headed against a post. The applause grew, as much for moments of intensity as inspiration. Modric most warmed their palms.
Five minutes into the second half Bale made it 3-0, neatly slotting home Ronaldo’s ball. Then he headed in Kroos’s corner for his 10th goal in seven games and his third of Zidane’s opening night, before Benzema crashed home in the final minute.
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