Mariano Diaz scored his first goal of the season, but Real Madrid were held to a 1-1 draw at Villarreal in La Liga on Saturday.
Diaz had the ball in the net with just two minutes played, heading in Dani Carvajal's cross as Villarreal appealed for offside. In a first half of few chances, Dani Parejo headed over the bar before Carvajal got in behind the Villarreal defence again, only for his touch to let him down.
After the break, Gerard Moreno shot across goal when Villarreal won the ball back in a dangerous position, and later converted a penalty when Thibaut Courtois brought down Samuel Chukwueze. Madrid were left hanging on for a point as on-loan Takefusa Kubo spurned an excellent late opportunity for a winner against his parent club.
A combination of injuries and the coronavirus saw Madrid go into this match without the spine of the team, captain Sergio Ramos, key midfielder Casemiro and centre-forward Karim Benzema. as well as their theoretical back-ups, Eder Militao, Federico Valverde and Luka Jovic, to visit a Villarreal team two points and two places above them in the table. Under those circumstances, this was perhaps an acceptable result.
Madrid's over-reliance on Benzema to score their goals is well-known, so it was reassuring to see them deliver without him. Diaz's goals-per-minute ratio is exceptional, and his problem in recent months has been one of attitude and opportunities rather than ability. He seems happy whether he plays or not, but given a chance here, he seized it.
Zinedine Zidane's Real Madrid sometimes seem to struggle after an international break -- see their two famous losses to newly-promoted sides, Real Mallorca in Oct. 2019 and Cadiz last month -- taking time to find their rhythm again. They got a point here, but it was a largely average performance against an often disappointing Villarreal.
There's still plenty of work to be done. Martin Odegaard was so impressive for Real Sociedad last season -- La Liga's best player for the first half of the campaign -- and his return to Madrid was always bound to be anti-climactic, but he's looked timid so far and without a clear role. We're still waiting for a defining performance from Eden Hazard, too.
Manager rating out of 10
6 -- Zidane voiced his concerns about a hectic fixture list taking its toll on players' health this week, and with so many absentees here he was forced to pick a makeshift XI based on the options he had available. That meant a rushed return for Dani Carvajal at right-back; no proper defensive midfielder; and a rare appearance for Diaz up front.
With Madrid a goal up, Zidane brought on Vinicius Junior and Isco, but neither player made a positive impact, and it was the Brazilian who contributed to Villarreal's equaliser by losing the ball. The coach's in-game management will face more questions now.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Thibaut Courtois, 6 -- Madrid have been conceding more goals lately but that's been down to overall fragility rather than a dip in the form of Courtois. Failed to deal with one Parejo free kick, and then gave away the penalty. A good late save from Kubo.
DF Dani Carvajal, 7 -- Hadn't played since hurting his knee in September but got an early assist on his return and could have grabbed another not long afterwards. Carvajal is so important to Madrid going forward.
DF Raphael Varane, 7 -- His minor shoulder injury with France was a scare, but the absence of Ramos and Militao forced him into action here. Had to lead the defence and used his speed to get back and deal with Moreno late on.
DF Nacho, 7 -- His first game since picking up a hamstring injury in October's Clasico. Nacho isn't quite the defender he once was -- his participation has dropped off drastically since 2019 -- but he was solid here, with one important interception early in the second half.
DF Ferland Mendy, 6 -- Has still never experienced defeat as a starter for Real Madrid in La Liga. Strong in defence.
MF Toni Kroos, 6 -- His midfield battle with Dani Parejo saw La Liga's two best passing midfielders go head-to-head. Played in Carvajal nicely in the first half and then got his team in trouble early in the second when trying to play out from the back.
MF Luka Modric, 7 -- With so many other senior players missing, Modric's role here was more important than ever. He has been in exceptional form lately and sometimes looks impossible to dispossess.
MF Martin Odegaard, 6 -- His first La Liga start since September. Odegaard is yet to find his place in this Real Madrid team and it looks like Zidane hasn't quite figured out how best to utilise him. Replaced early by Isco.
FW Lucas Vazquez, 6 -- Having performed well at right-back in the absence of Carvajal, Lucas shows the value of having such a versatile, unfussy player in the squad. One enthusiastic first-half press to almost win the ball back was an example of his qualities.
FW Eden Hazard, 6 -- Testing positive for the coronavirus was a setback after his screamer against Huesca three weeks ago looked like finally kickstarting Hazard's Real Madrid career. Involved early on, but faded badly and was the first man taken off.
FW Mariano Diaz, 7 -- His first start since May 2019, having barely played 90 La Liga minutes in total in the last 18 months. Zidane is reluctant to pick him, but the lack of striking alternatives here meant he had no choice -- and he was rewarded with a very early goal. Later hit the post from an offside position.