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Real Madrid Can No Longer Ignore Kovacic Importance nor Benzema Ineffectiveness

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistDecember 3, 2016

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 03:  Mateo Kovacic of Real Madrid CF in action during La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at Camp Nou Stadium on December 3, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

Real Madrid remained top of La Liga and unbeaten for the season after salvaging a point with a last-minute equaliser at the Camp Nou in El Clasico, drawing 1-1 with Barcelona on Saturday afternoon.

Captain Sergio Ramos was the man in place to head home the late strike for Los Blancos, who merited a point in what was a reasonably low-key encounter considering the build-up to the game, the potential importance in the title race—even at this early stage of the season—and recent high-octane clashes between the sides.

Manager Zinedine Zidane has now gone 33 games unbeaten, one shy of the club record, and he would have made particular notes of some of his players on the day, with Mateo Kovacic and Karim Benzema standing out for very different reasons.

Kovacic, deserving his place

The Croatian wasn't even a first-choice consideration at the beginning of the season, with Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric putting the centre of midfield on lockdown and 4-3-3 the go-to formation.

Injuries to each of the three in turn, however, have given the former Inter Milan man his opportunity—and while he has been impressive and consistent since the beginning of the campaign, Kovacic's last two months have been exceptional.

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He is one of Madrid's, not just the midfield's, best performers this season and helps balance the side tactically as well as contributing enormously technically.

With more than 1,200 minutes to his name across all competitions, he's the seventh-highest in the Madrid squad for game time this season—and barely into December, he is already less than 200 minutes away from beating last year's total game time.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 03:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona (L) competes for the ball with Mateo Kovacic of Real Madrid CF (R) during La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at Camp Nou Stadium on December 3, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Ph
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

Barcelona tried repeatedly to break through the middle with passes from deep and solo actions on the ball. Kovacic was inevitably on hand to repel both, working in tandem with Luka Modric but also clearly taking the lead for the defensive work, with his elder compatriot still searching for his best touch and full fitness after injury.

Casemiro being left on the bench was partly a nod to Isco's big performance against Atletico Madrid and partly another to Barcelona's vulnerabilities, but also to the capacity of Kovacic to lock down the middle of the park. Per WhoScored, nobody on either team made more than Kovacic's five tackles in the match, and only Modric made more than his two interceptions.

Zidane has a real selection problem now that Casemiro is available again and Kovacic is 100 per cent deserving of his continued place in the team.

Benzema, in by default

At the other end of that scale is striker Benzema.

The Frenchman started as Real's No. 9, but there's more than a hint of fortune about him having started El Clasico and no surprise whatsoever that he was hooked off with 15 minutes to go, with Real searching for an equaliser.

Bluntly put, Benzema was about as effective in Barcelona's penalty box as Keylor Navas was.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 03:  Karim Benzema of Real Madrid CF (L) and Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid CF reacts during La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at Camp Nou Stadium on December 3, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

The striker didn't record a shot on target, only one off target, failed to link at all with his midfielders and had only 31 touches—the fewest of any outfield starter in the match. Off the pace, lacking movement, failing to run in behind the defence and no threat to Marc-Andre ter Stegen at all, the only surprise was that when Zidane finally put an end to Benzema's misery it was for another midfielder.

Instead of immediately turning to Mariano, Zidane gave Marco Asensio a chance. When the Dominican striker entered with five minutes to play, that was all the time he needed to show more aggression, pace and anticipation than Benzema managed all afternoon.

Fitness and sharpness go hand-in-hand with confidence for strikers, and there wasn't an awful lot of service coming from midfield either. But Benzema's game has always been about more than goals: he drops deep, works the channels, sets up chances and holds up play. There has been none of that this season, and there was certainly none at the Camp Nou.

Alvaro Morata must be ruing his ill-timed injury, for without it there would be an unmissable opportunity to establish himself as Real Madrid's first-choice striker.

Clasico tactical highlights

From a Real Madrid perspective, the combined defensive resilience of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane has to go down as a highlight, with the duo rarely looking overly troubled by one of the world's finest attacks.

True, they haven't been at their best in recent weeks anyway, but the Leo Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar triumvirate were more notable on the day for arguments with the officials than for penalty box prowess—aside from, of course, the instance where Suarez netted the opening goal.

Even afterward, though, Ramos and Varane largely took care of business, and Keylor Navas never came under incessant pressure to keep Real in the match. Ramos, of course, reprised his role of late, great hero for the team—and perhaps it was most notable that on this occasion he scored a pivotal goal without having first conceded a penalty.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 03:  Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid CF celebrates after scoring the first goal during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at Camp Nou stadium on December 03, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queima
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

Lucas Vazquez might have had a penalty of his own early on, had the referee spotted a foul by Javier Mascherano, but despite that disappointment the winger was relentless with his tracking back, quick dribbles forward into space and willingness to support the attack.

With Gareth Bale out injured, Lucas is almost a guaranteed name on the team-sheet and is taking his opportunity well, without ever really looking close to providing the top-quality delivery and threat on goal the Welshman does.

Zidane himself deserves applause, too; his team selection was bold, choosing Isco over Casemiro, but warranted. It was also tactically sound: The Spanish midfielder dropped left from his No. 10 starting role when Real didn't have possession, allowing Cristiano Ronaldo freedom to stay high, move central and exploit counter-attacking opportunities.

Isco had a tough job but stuck to it well, even if he wasn't afforded too many opportunities to showcase his on-the-ball talents on the day.

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