Ranking Real Madrid's Top 5 Players for March 2016
On paper it looked consistent, brilliant even, but the reality was rather different. For Real Madrid, the month of March yielded five consecutive wins across La Liga and the UEFA Champions League, but the fluctuations in form throughout were extreme.
To begin the month, Zinedine Zidane's men laboured and scrapped past bottom-placed Levante. An explosion against Celta Vigo came next. A somewhat fortunate win against a wasteful AS Roma came after that. Then it was a listless display against Las Palmas before Madrid ended the month with another eruption against Sevilla.
In the wake of another eventful Clasico in which Madrid were brilliant (a game that doesn't factor in here), it's easy to forget such a topsy-turvy month preceded it.
But as we do every 30 days or so, we've gone back to rank Real Madrid's five best players for the month just completed.
5. Lucas Vazquez
It was a strange Wednesday night, the stakes were low and the opponent was lowly. Going in, it had the feel of a non-event, and it turned to be one.
When Real Madrid took on Levante in early March, Los Blancos were flat and aimless. Few looked interested, and a handful were missing. Some others may as well have been.
But there was one bright spot: Lucas Vazquez.
Industrious, energetic, disciplined and incisive up the right flank, the no-fuss winger had been Madrid's standout on the night—by a distance, too.
"Zizou's dream?" said Marca. "A team full of 11 players like Lucas."
Vazquez is certainly the type managers love, and throughout March he was extremely useful for Zidane.
After starring against Levante, the 24-year-old was prominent in Madrid's second-half explosion against Celta Vigo, made an immediate impact as a substitute against Roma with an assist, and he worked tirelessly in Madrid's otherwise lethargic performance against Las Palmas.
4. Gareth Bale
It didn't take him long.
As Cristiano Ronaldo was performing a one-man demolition job of Celta Vigo at the Bernabeu on March 5, Zidane introduced Gareth Bale midway through the second half to mark the Welshman's return after almost two months out.
His return was welcome one, and immediately he was lively and threatening. Then he scored. It had taken him only 15 minutes to pick up where he'd left off.
Just days later, Bale completed a strong hour against Roma in which he looked potent despite not scoring, and then ended the month with an outstanding display against Sevilla that could have translated into, well, anything.
Indeed, against the Andalusians, Bale scored one and assisted one, but he also had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside, struck the bar with a header and saw a powerful shot pushed against the post by Sevilla goalkeeper Sergio Rico.
It might sound like a strange thing to say given that he didn't feature in it, but the Madrid derby in late February was a turning point for Casemiro.
That afternoon at the Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid once again were picked off by an Atletico Madrid outfit that preyed on their neighbours' vulnerabilities.
At speed, Atleti counter-attacked; disciplined and organised, they won possession in key areas; Antoine Griezmann scored when Toni Kroos failed to track him from midfield. Zidane hasn't sent his team out in the same way since.
Seemingly recognising the two-way limitations of a midfield featuring Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and one other playmaker, Zidane changed it up in March: The extra playmaker was ditched, Kroos was repositioned on the left and Casemiro was introduced as the natural anchor.
Admittedly, the results since have been mixed, but Casemiro showed some extremely encouraging signs for his manager.
Against Celta Vigo, the Brazilian's pressing and ball winning was influential. Against Las Palmas, he scored the vital winner after being one of his side's best on the night. Then against Sevilla, he combined with Kroos and Modric in a way that suggested Zidane has found his best midfield.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo
Days and weeks pass, games fly by and seasons fluctuate, but it doesn't change: Cristiano Ronaldo racks up goals regardless.
In March, Ronaldo tallied seven across Real Madrid's five outings, scoring in all but one of them and establishing himself as the leading scorer in La Liga and the Champions League.
Of course, his staggering second-half eruption against Celta Vigo is the performance that sticks out, but his contributions against Roma and Levante—a goal and an assist in each game—were equally decisive.
The consistency is striking. Ronaldo might have "off" games here and there, but he never has "off" months.
1. Keylor Navas
Keylor Navas' excellence just won't stop. Ever. And Real Madrid are fortunate that's the case.
As he's done all season, Navas stopped basically everything that came his way in March, bailing out his team-mates again and again to ensure Madrid escaped the month unscathed.
Against Levante, the Costa Rican made a stunning save to deny Giuseppe Rossi and prevent Madrid from going behind. Against Celta Vigo's Iago Aspas and Las Palmas' Willian Jose, ditto.
Navas was also vital when Madrid were fortunate against Roma, making strong saves from Kostas Manolas and Alessandro Florenzi, and then he finished the month with a sterling performance against Sevilla, which included a save from Kevin Gameiro's spot-kick.