It was in the 68th minute that Braga pushed for an equalizer and pressed Real Madrid hard, having halved the visitors’ lead five minutes earlier and their spirits lifted.
But away from the rush, Nacho and Luka Modric started to mix the ball with quick touches, slowing down the game and helping to calm things down.
It may seem like a small detail, but their relationship can be seen as a sign of Madrid’s confidence and control. And that strength has always been considered important at the Spanish club.
In 2016-17, Zinedine Zidane’s La Liga and Champions League winners relied on key backups Mateo Kovacic, Isco, James Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata – known as the ‘Unidad B’ (B Unit).
The squad’s rotation issues are not limited to Madrid, but have been the focus of manager Carlo Ancelotti’s attention this week with El Clasico coming to Barcelona on Saturday.
As Ancelotti fielded his preferred XI for the 1-1 draw at Sevilla last Saturday, the Italian coach said it was possible to rotate his line-up for the first time this season.
Ahead of last night’s Champions League third-leg tie in Portugal – a 2-1 victory thanks to goals from Rodrigo and Jude Bellingham – four reserve players Nacho, Fran Garcia, Modric and Joselu are expected to start.
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Although he has only started two of his 10 La Liga games this season, Nacho is the club’s first senior captain and is the most visible on the pitch as he is the one calling the shots.
Braga can be seen giving constant signals to his teammates, especially in the first few minutes. He made five clearances in the game and impressed at the back – his long ball sent Vinicius Junior into space for Rodrigo’s opener.
Madrid have no hesitation in giving Nacho a third-choice centre-back role after an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury that will keep Eder Militao out for at least another five months. Nacho will be 34 when his contract expires next June, but according to sources close to him – who, like those cited here, have not been identified because they were not authorized to comment publicly – he has been told he can stay early. Above that, Barnabas.
The 38-year-old Modric turned down an offer from the Saudi Arabian club at the end of last season to stay in Madrid.
Although his role has changed and he is playing less minutes, starting only three league games and coming off the bench five times, those around him still see him in good form. “He still has a lot of football left in his legs,” said a source close to the Croatian, dismissing any suggestion he wants to leave in January.
At Braga, Modric started for the second time since the 3-1 La Liga defeat by Atletico Madrid.
He played 94 minutes, completing 73 of 75 passes (97.3 percent accuracy – second highest among starters), seven of which created goalscoring opportunities for the team. Further evidence of the level of seriousness in the team was the penalty awarded by Madrid.
Modric also proved to be a valuable player in defence, particularly on the left flank, supporting Garcia at left-back after recovering six.
Garcia, 24, spent three years at City with Rayo Vallecano before returning to his founding club this summer. He is finding it difficult to adapt to Ancelotti’s first team and has not started since the Atletico game, but he played against Braga, took 4 free kicks and recovered 5 and had a more attacking impact than Dani Carvajal.
No-one around the team can deny that Ferland Mendy is a valuable back-up to Ferland, who missed 23 games in all competitions last season through injury – and the first five of this one.
“I changed the lineup a bit because there were injured players,” Ancelotti said after the game. “As I said yesterday, David Alaba is coming back from injury, Mendy could be a threat. The men who replaced him did a great job.
Mendy is not seen as a dangerous option defensively, Eduardo Camavinga has also impressed at left-back, while Garcia has not played regularly but his demeanor makes him a positive presence in the dressing room and he has been waiting for his chance. .
Tuesday was a missed opportunity for Joselu, but at no fault of his own. He was scheduled to play, but was later withdrawn from the team after showing flu-like symptoms.
Joselu, the first team’s only recognized out-and-out striker, has always been highly regarded both internally and externally at the club. In the end, Rodrigo’s goal against Vinicius Junior was important – despite Madrid taking the lead, it was the club’s first goal since the opening day of La Liga.
Summer signing Joselu has netted five times in 637 minutes of support and half of his 12 appearances for Madrid have come from the bench and will not be part of the starting line-up against Barcelona on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Ancelotti’s selection of Brahim Diaz and Lucas Vazquez – the two outfield players in the squad with few minutes this season, apart from the injured Ceballos and Militao – has seen them remain a step below the rest. Brahim didn’t come on last night, Vazquez was only introduced on 89 minutes.
Both have shown no signs of being unprofessional and are the type of players who create a good atmosphere around the team. Nobody at the club seems to want him to play a prominent role in the future if there are more chances due to injury or suspension.
Those are the issues where the ‘B’ unit will come into their own – as Nacho and Modric did in northern Portugal on Tuesday, providing security and continuity in emergencies.
El Clasico: Real Madrid and Barcelona’s tense week combination will not change.
(Top photo: Jose Manuel Alvarez/Quality Sports Images/Getty Images)