By the standards of most teams, Real Madrid’s season has been good. Third in La Liga, they’ve also lifted the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA World Club Cup, are assured of Champions League qualification, and have reached the last eight in Europe this time around.
However, Real are not most teams. This is a club that never settles for second best, let alone third best, which is why their domestic performances have put Zinedine Zidane under intense pressure and led to kilometres of speculative newspaper columns on what has gone wrong.
The signs were there early on. Draws against Valencia and Levante in their opening three games allowed Barcelona to establish an early lead in La Liga, and the gap has continued to widen. Worse still, Atlético Madrid have overtaken Zidane’s men, who spent the period from late November to late February in fourth place, and who are now 15 points off the pace set by Barcelona and four points behind our city rivals. Add in defeats to Real Betis, Girona, Espanyol and Villarreal, and an embarrassing Copa del Rey exit at the hands of Leganés, and you have a recipe for discontent and the blueprint for a disappointing season.
The cause of this slump is not one single factor but a couple of separate issues that have combined to reduce the team’s effectiveness. Rumours of dressing room unrest, focusing on Ronaldo and Ramos, may simply be a side effect of the tension produced by poor results on the pitch, but it has not helped the team to improve.
The poor form of the front three – Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema – has also proved damaging. Real depend on a gameplan that involves getting the ball to their attacking trio as quickly as possible. This season, Real have averaged 2.5 goals per game, compared to 2.8 last season, and that modest drop in output has been enough to see Real’s standards slip. When the star trio fail to produce goals at the usual rate, it puts pressure on the rest of the team, which is why Real are conceding 1.13 goals per game compared with 1.08 last season.
Yet while La Liga may be a lost cause, European glory remains a possibility. Real came through a tough test against Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 to set up another quarter-final – their eighth consecutive appearance in the last eight – and keep open the possibility of making history. This time, their disappointing domestic performance means that they are generally rated as fourth-favourites to win the competition with online bookmakers, and Real fans who bet on Stakers.com should be able to get good odds on their team progressing.
If they can lift the trophy at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev in May, Real will set a new record. Having become the first team to retain the Champions League when they beat Juventus 4-1 in the final last season, they would score a unique treble of consecutive Champions League titles to go with their record five European Cups, won consecutively between 1956 and 1960, to confirm them as the greatest club side in European history.
However, first there is the matter of Juventus to deal with. To get past the Italian champions, Real will have to draw on their memory of victory over the Serie A side in last year’s final, but more importantly, they will have to replicate and improve on the impressive performance against Paris Saint-Germain that enabled them to reach the last eight. Against the fancied French side, Real pressed and harassed their opponents with intensity, while Ronaldo put in a vintage performance and key creative players Kroos and Asensio made significant contributions.
As Juventus showed against Tottenham, they have the resilience and experience required to win this competition, but Real can match them for both qualities. Perhaps the most significant aspect of their performance against Paris Saint-Germain was the strength of character they showed after going 1-0 down on 33 minutes in the first leg, battling back to secure a decisive 3-1 victory, and then following that up with a gritty effort in Paris.
A reproduction of that level of commitment and intensity would give them a great chance of reaching the semi-finals. Beyond that, an encounter with any of the sides remaining in the competition would be tough but should be the kind of challenge that the Real players would relish, and the possibility of Zidane’s men salvaging their season by beating Barcelona in the Champions League final is an idea to tantalise the imagination of Real fans!