Three, two, one – Higuain, Kaka, Benzema. And as if by magic, Valencia went up in smoke. Nine changes brought nine goals – six for Madrid, all from those three – and talk of the trivote (Madrid’s much-mentioned three-man defensive midfield shield) was swiftly replaced by the heralding of a new trio. None of the three started on Wednesday; they are what is known in Spain as a banquillo de lujo. Luxury replacements. Last night, they set the benchmark.
Yes, Valencia’s defending was dreadful, particularly for the first two goals. “I’ve never suffered such shame on a football field,” was coach Unai Emery’s angry assessment after the game. “We played like a team who is 15th in the league.”
Except Valencia are not – they’re the third best team in Spain. And Madrid’s reserves destroyed them.
|BENZEMA WAS LETHAL
| PLAYER RATING
|8||Fantastic night for the Frenchman, who was at the heart of everything positive produced by the visitors, and linked wonderfully well with Kaka and Higuain. Opened the scoring, and played a key role in another three goals.|
Madrid’s three attackers appeared to connect telepathically; each one knew exactly where the other two were and knew just how to find them. They exploited the space, they got behind the full-backs, utilised the flanks, passed intuitively, gelled impressively and finished ruthlessly – with pace, power and panache. It was a lesson in chemistry, physics and biology all at once – the appliance of science. And Valencia could only stand and watch, even though nobody expected them to applaud.
Benzema was lethal. The Frenchman rattled the crossbar, coolly converted the opener and was involved in all of Madrid’s best work. His all-round play has evolved, his tactical awareness has improved and his work-rate has increased.
Higuain was devastating. The Argentina striker netted a hat-trick and set up two more. His pace and positional play make him the ideal component for Mourinho’s counter-attacking strategy. How he has been missed.
Kaka was everywhere. On the left, on the right, in midfield, behind the strikers, the Brazilian was a ubiquitous presence, scoring two and making two more – this was the Kaka of old.
|HIGUAIN WAS DEVASTATING
| PLAYER RATING
||The Argentine is back with a bang. A clinical hat-trick from inside the area, his link-up play with Kaka and Benzema, despite the poor defending from the hosts, was a joy to watch at times. His form has provided Mourinho a selection headache for the crunch Champions League meetings.|
Mourinho watched in delight. “We played spectacular football,” he said afterwards. “We were absolutely fantastic.”
But other managers across Europe were no doubt watching in admiration too. Benzema and Higuain have constantly been linked with moves to the top Premiership clubs, while Kaka is still being tracked by his former side AC Milan, among others. Summer bids seem inevitable, with big money on offer and the lure of first-team football the carrot. These players are too good for the bench.
So will they stay?
According to Mourinho, the answer is in the affirmative. “We shouldn’t make any [real] changes to the squad; just the usual – two or three new players,” he said.
That leaves plenty in reserve, even accounting for injuries, and Mourinho now knows who he can trust out of Higuain, Kaka and Benzema. An assault on three titles next season will necessitate further rotation, but last night proved Madrid’s plan B can be as good as their plan A.
Real’s reserves have stepped up and now they are ready to step in. That could spell bad news for Barcelona, particularly as Mourinho is invariably stronger in his second season at a club.
|KAKA WAS EVERYWHERE
| PLAYER RATING
||A glimpse of the former genius of the Brazilian. Instrumental, and involved in almost every goal, getting his name on the scoresheet twice thanks to two excellent runs from deep. Also provided a seamless assist for Higuain to complete his hat-trick.|
But Madrid aren’t doing too badly this season either.
Guardiola will have been watching last night’s game as well, possibly with some trepidation ahead of Wednesday night’s Champions League semi-final first-leg at the Santiago Bernabeu.
“Madrid’s strength is clear,” he said after the 2-0 win over Osasuna. “Their replacements are Benzema, Higuain and Kaka.”
And Barca still have problems in defence: captain Carles Puyol is a big doubt after injuring his hamstring on his comeback in last weekend’s 1-1 draw at Madrid, while full-backs Eric Abidal and Adriano are sidelined.
That leaves Maxwell as the only available left-back and the Brazilian struggles against pace, as illustrated when he was left static by Theo Walcott against Arsenal in the Champions League last season.
Such velocity on the flanks gives Mourinho options on Wednesday and Guardiola will now be left guessing as to who will start in attack in Madrid.
Ronaldo will be a certainty, of course, but any of last night’s illustrious trio could slot in and perform. And if not, they may get their chance as impact substitutes, when legs are tired and limbs are weary.
In the meantime, Higuain, Kaka and Benzema are writing their own story in Madrid. It’s the one about an Argentinian, a Brazilian and a Frenchman, playing football in Spain. It sounds like a joke – but you won’t find Pep laughing.