It was a chilly night in the Spanish capital, but Real Madrid did not freeze. On the contrary, everything clicked into place for Zinedine Zidane – and not a moment too soon.
Karim Benzema was at his lethal best, Sergio Ramos returned to galvanise the defence and the record 13-time European champions flexed their muscles to blow away Borussia Monchengladbach and quieten the Europa League jibes being thrown their way.
Real Madrid have never failed to make it out of their Champions League and despite fears among their fans and media in the Spanish capital, that proud record never looked in doubt at the Alfredo di Stefano on Wednesday.
Zidane’s side won 2-0 thanks to Benzema’s headed brace, but it might have been five, six or seven, such was their dominance.
It had been a dismal group phase for Madrid until this point, with six of their seven points coming against a weak Inter, and the other in a snatched 2-2 draw at Gladbach.
The good news was their captain’s return from injury, with Madrid suffering eight defeats in their last 10 Champions League games without Ramos. Among the worst of those were the two recent early exits against Man City and Ajax, both in the last 16.
The 35-year-old’s leadership was keenly felt, and heard, as he marshalled and instructed the defence throughout, as Madrid kept only their second clean sheet of the group phase.
Benzema took care of things at the other end of the field. The Frenchman celebrated equalling Roberto Carlos’ record of 527 games for a non-Spanish player at Madrid by sending his side ahead with a brilliant header from Lucas Vazquez’s cross in the ninth minute.
Alassane Plea might have equalised for Gladbach when he ran through on goal moments later but clipped his effort over Courtois and wide of the post, in the Germans’ only promising moment in the first half.
The rest was one-way traffic, with Luka Modric hitting the post and having a goal disallowed for offside, while Benzema headed in his second goal in much the same way he managed his first, this time connecting with a ball that Brazilian forward Rodrygo Goes had served up on a silver platter.
In Madrid’s 1-0 win over Sevilla last weekend, we saw signs of Madrid getting back on the right path after a shaky start to the season, showing the kind of discipline and desire that propelled them to the Liga title last season.
This performance raised the bar further, with Zidane’s resurgent side not just defending well but looking confident and sure of themselves, trusting in one another, their prestige and their undoubted individual quality.
Most importantly, they worked hard, which wasn’t the case in recent defeats by Valencia and Alaves.
This was the perfect warm-up, then, for Saturday’s Madrid derby clash with rivals Atletico, and the ideal way to lighten the load on Zidane. It’s unlikely he’ll face any more direct questions about his future, at least until the Champions League resumes in 2021.
Madrid were helped by Gladbach’s dismal display, with the visitors looking every bit the team that collapsed in the final three minutes of the pair’s 2-2 draw at Borussia-Park in October, rather than the exciting side that steamrollered los Blancos for the first 87 minutes of that game.
Benzema came within inches of a hat-trick with an effort that smashed against the crossbar, Sommer produced a spectacular save to deny Ramos, while Vazquez hit the near post too as Real ran riot.
Benzema had another chance at the death but this time he was unable to nod the ball home. Third time unlucky, but no unlucky third place for Madrid.
Despite all the mounting doubts and criticism, Zidane led his side to top spot in Group B. Mission accomplished, order restored.