While Real Madrid’s ‘BBC’ strikeforce of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo were all on the scoresheet in Saturday’s 5-1 La Liga win over Rayo Vallecano, the man of the match at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu was Blancos midfielder Toni Kroos.
Kroos set up the night’s first goal for Bale with a snapping tackle and then perfect cross, and also curled in a superb 25 yard effort to make it 3-1 early in the second half.
That was his first goal for Madrid, and killed off valiant resistance from a Rayo side which just seconds earlier had almost made it 2-2.
Coach Carlo Ancelotti afterwards hailed the performance of a player who in just three months has established himself as a key figure in the Madrid engine-room.
“Kroos was the best player on pitch,” Ancelotti said. “He has surprised me as he is playing at very, very high level. His partnership with (Luka) Modric is very good at the moment, they are playing very well together.”
Ancelotti was spot-on. Kroos has been absolutely outstanding since his summer move from Bayern Munich. When the 24-year-old was slotted into the ‘holding’ midfield role vacated by Xabi Alonso, many Blancos fans and pundits worried that last year’s Champions League winners would lose their balance in the centre, but Madrid are playing even better this season.
The German international, who also scored against Ireland in the 1-1 Euro 2016 qualifier in Gelsenkirchen last month, is one of Europe’s very best players at the moment. His €20 million fee, a price conditioned by a breakdown in contract talks with Bayern, was phenomenal value. In the excellent newly published book ‘Pep Confidential’, author Marti Perarnau writes that current Munich coach Josep Guardiola found “his football alter-ego in Toni Kroos”, and Guardiola was not happy to lose him over money.
Hours before Kroos’ masterclass at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Guardiola’s former side had stumbled to a fortunate 2-1 win at lowly Almeria, their first win in three La Liga games. An almost unrecognisable Barcelona were rescued by a match-winning performance by their new(ish) striker Luis Suarez, who was introduced at half-time with his team 1-0 down and turned things around by laying on goals for Neymar and Jordi Alba.
Barca won because of individual brilliance in attack, not through dominating the game through midfield possession. That had long been the Catalan side’s trademark, especially under Guardiola, but current coach Luis Enrique prefers a more direct ‘vertical’ style. Their main playmaker on Saturday was Javier Mascherano at centre-back, with starting central midfielders Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Rafinha having little influence.
With Xavi Hernandez now 34 and no longer able to control games with his passing, Barca badly needed to sign a player like Kroos last summer. The new Madrid No 8 has played more short passes (684 in 11 games) than any player in La Liga this season, taking over a position atop the rankings which has been Xavi’s for the last decade. This shift shows that Madrid, not Barca, are now Spain’s most attractive side.
Last week blaugrana legend Johan Cruyff, who remains close to Guardiola, claimed that Kroos only joined Madrid as Barca had not tried hard enough to sign him.
“I do not understand why Kroos is not at Barca,” Cruyff said in comments motivated at least in part motivated by his dislike for the current Camp Nou board. “I have not spoken with him, but I know his sympathies for the club. He wanted to play here.”
In Madrid everyone is just delighted Kroos ended up at the Bernabeu, with both Blancos-backing papers AS and Marca featuring the German on their covers on Sunday morning. Which just made the weekend extra painful for blaugrana fans.
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