Lack of goals dogs Benitez
MADRID — Real Madrid’s new coach Rafa Benitez said last week he was not concerned about his side’s relative goal drought in their final warm-up matches before they began their latest La Liga campaign at promoted Sporting Gijon.
Those words came back to haunt him on Sunday as his expensively assembled team were held to a 0-0 draw at Gijon’s Molinon stadium, with the likes of FIFA Ballon d’or winner Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, the world’s most expensive player, drawing blanks.
It was a triumph for modest Gijon, whose annual budget in 2014-15 was more than 100 times smaller than Real’s, while Benitez was left bemoaning lack of shooting accuracy from his players but insisting he was still optimistic Real can secure silverware this term.
Benitez, who was a player and coach in Real’s academy before stints in charge at clubs including Valencia, Liverpool, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Napoli, replaced the sacked Carlo Ancelotti after Real failed to win the Champions League, La Liga or the King’s Cup last season.
“We finished up playing a 4-3-3 formation to try to keep the players who could score high up the pitch, have more control in the middle and have the fullbacks offer width,” Benitez told a news conference.
“I think that we managed all that but lacked precision in the final ball and weren’t clinical enough in front of goal,” added the 55-year-old.
“It’s a matter of steadily improving our precision, our physical fitness and the way we function as a unit.”
Real’s next La Liga outing is at home to Real Betis on Saturday, when the demanding fans at the Bernabeu will be expecting entertaining football and a resounding victory.
Anything less and Benitez could already be subjected to the angry whistling that dogged Ancelotti’s second and final season.
Captain Sergio Ramos said there was no need to worry about the recent lack of goals.
“Obviously the first half didn’t go well and while we had more possession and more of the initiative in the second, our chances didn’t finish in goals and we weren’t able to kill off the game,” the Spain international told reporters.
“This shows that there are teams in the first division that fully deserve to be here and it is going to be very tough to win at every stadium,” he added. “We have to continue improving.”
Meanwhile, Lionel Messi missed a penalty kick but Luis Suarez scored in the second half to give Barcelona a 1-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao in its Spanish league opener on Sunday.
That gave the defending champion a small gap on archrival Real Madrid right away, after their rivals’ goalless draw with Sporting Gijon.
Suarez netted the winner from close range after a left-flank cross by Jordi Alba in the 54th minute at Bilbao’s San Mames Stadium. Messi had a chance to open the scoring in the first half after a disputed foul on Suarez inside the area, but the Argentine playmaker had his low shot from the spot saved by goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz.
“We won the game and that’s what’s important,” Suarez said.
A disappointing result in the opener would have raised more questions about Barcelona after an unusually difficult start to the season. The club was stunned by Bilbao last week in the Spanish Super Cup final, losing the title 5-1 on aggregate.
Bilbao presented the Super Cup trophy to the nearly 50,000 fans that packed the San Mames on Sunday, but the team could not keep its momentum going against the Spanish powerhouse.
Barcelona played just well enough to earn the victory, and had most of the significant scoring opportunities. Sergi Roberto hit the crossbar with a right-footed shot in the 60th and Messi made one of his traditional runs past several defenders near the end of the game but his shot came out weak for an easy save by Iraizoz.
Messi’s best chance was the 32nd-minute penalty kick, when his left-footed shot was deflected wide as Iraizoz dived to his right to tip the ball away.
Bilbao players loudly complained at the penalty call as it appeared there was only light contact by defender Gorka Elustondo on Suarez. Replays also showed that the Uruguayan striker appeared to be offside at the time of the pass from the back field.
Luis Enrique’s team began its season with a depleted squad because of injuries and suspensions, and it only got worse on Sunday when right-back Dani Alves had to be substituted in the first half and Sergio Busquets in the second because of apparent injuries. Star striker Neymar was recovering from the mumps and fellow Brazilian Adriano was injured, while Gerard Pique and Jeremy Mathieu were suspended.
“It’s a difficult situation; they are very important players for our team,” Suarez said. “But we have a lot of quality players to replace them if needed.” —
Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale went close to opening the scoring, but failed to beat Sporting Gijon keeper Ivan Cuellar.