Isco earns perfect 10, rescues rotated Real Madrid at Sporting Gijon
Real Madrid kept their title tilt on track in extremis at El Molinon with a hard-fought 3-2 victory over a resolute Sporting Gijon. Duje Cop gave the hosts the lead with a wonderfully worked goal before Isco pulled one back with equal mastery of the ball. Mikel Vesga made it two shortly after the restart before Alvaro Morata levelled the game 10 minutes later. Isco, the best player on the pitch, popped up with the winner in the 90th minute to secure all three points against a side that held Rafa Benitez's Madrid to a goalless draw last season.
With the Bayern Munich return leg in mind, Zinedine Zidane rang the changes and it is worth asking where the side he fielded would be in La Liga. The reserve frontline played with more fluidity and less predictability than Real's more celebrated "BBC" has often done this season while back-up right-back Danilo shone and the practically unused Fabio Coentrao put in a noteworthy shift on the left.
Running the clock down in the corner is not exactly the Real Madrid style but it was the right approach under the circumstances. There was little to fault overall in Real's collective performance but Kiko Casilla did little to trouble Keylor Navas' standing and Marco Asensio failed to grasp his 90-minute opportunity.
Manager rating out of 10
9 -- Zidane managed this game extremely well. Playing a second XI was risky but the Real boss has instilled enough belief and confidence in his fringe players to inspire performances like this. Marcelo was brought on at exactly the right moment with Coentrao tiring and Mariano's introduction aided Asensio in stretching Sporting on the flanks for the pivotal final 20 minutes.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Kiko Casilla, 7 -- Casilla was out quickly to an awful back-pass from Nacho and was generally solid. The reserve keeper could do little about the first goal but perhaps should have been better positioned for the second.
DF Danilo, 8 -- The Brazilian defended well and went close with a header on 62 minutes before teeing up Morata with an excellent cross for Real's second. He may lack consistency but Danilo scored some points with his manager in El Molinon as the visitors' best at the back by some margin with five tackles.
DF Sergio Ramos, 6 -- Ramos seemed surprised by Sporting's early adventure and failed to direct his makeshift backline. Although he was solid in the air and offered himself up in search of the winner, it's rare for the captain to be overshadowed by his subordinates.
DF Nacho, 7 -- Other than a suicidal back-pass, Nacho put in a couple of timely tackles and drew a fine save out of Ivan Cuellar with the score at 1-1. Another game to reassure Zidane that when he's short at the back, he has a player more than capable of rising to the occasion.
DF Fabio Coentrao, 7 -- On his first league start of the season the Portugal defender was among Real's best players in the first half, attacking with verve and covering his flank well against Sporting's incursions. He was first off but it was purely match fitness that dictated the decision.
MF Mateo Kovacic, 7 -- Quietly efficient, Kovacic was second only to Danilo in tackles made and topped the pass completion rate for the team alongside Isco. The Croatian midfielder probed the Sporting defence with several driving runs and provided decent cover for the back four when needed.
MF James Rodriguez, 6 -- James did not impose himself on the game as he shifted positions with Isco in the support line but provided some decent service from his mercurial left boot and chanced his arm on occasion, going close to making it 3-2 with a rasping shot on 73 minutes.
MF Isco, 10 -- Well Isco may have pointed to his shirt after scoring the winner: his first goal was sublime and his second a perfectly placed strike through the legs of a defender and beyond the reach of Cuellar. Mesmeric throughout, Sporting could not restrict him and Zidane is fast running out of reasons to do the same.
FW Lucas Vazquez, 7 -- A lively first half should have brought a goal from an early header and although Vazquez had the ball in the net shortly afterwards he was flagged for offside. He was not happy to be taken off and with good reason -- he had a decent game but his influence waned a little after the break.
FW Alvaro Morata, 7 -- Morata didn't look entirely sharp on the counter but equalised with a well-taken header on 57 minutes and went close on 64 from Marcelo's glorious cross. It seems the Spanish international is rehearsing every week to shake off his understudy role. This was another step towards centre stage.
FW Marco Asensio, 6 -- Asensio suffered from a lack of space in the first half and only came to life when he switched to the right after Vazquez went off. Still, he will have to do more if he is to become a regular back-up to Cristiano Ronaldo or Gareth Bale.
DF Marcelo, 7 -- On for Coentrao, the Brazilian immediately enlivened the attack and went close with a stinging drive.
FW Mariano, 6 -- On for Vazquez, Mariano saw a decent headed chance go just over 10 minutes from time and was full of running.
MF Casemiro, NR -- On for Kovacic with a couple of minutes to play, Casemiro helped to shore up at the back.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.