MADRID-based journalist Brendan Boyle (@BrendyBoyle) takes a look at Real Madrid's prospects ahead of their Champions League showdown with Manchester City.
Real Madrid v Manchester City | Wednesday 26th February 2020, 20:00 | BT Sport
And it was all going so well.
Real Madrid were trundling along unspectacularly, but trundling along nonetheless, towards the game that’s been looming on the horizon for months now: the visit of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Unbeaten in the league since 19th October – a run largely constructed on a solid defence and a functional midfield – Madrid fans were growing in confidence by the day.
The next crisis is never far away
But two weeks is a long time in Madrid; winter has turned into what feels like mid-spring here in the Spanish Capital and Zinedine Zidane is now suddenly feeling the heat.
Since their unconvincing Madrid derby win over city rivals Atletico on February 1, Zidane’s men have won one of their last four. “Madrid are letting up at the worst moment,” say Marca.
It’s unforgivable that Madrid have let Barca off the hook right in the middle of the Catalan club’s institutional chaos, dropping points against Celta Vigo and Levante in the exact moment when the pressure really needed to be applied to Bartomeu and his circus at Camp Nou.
Let’s not forget that Madrid were also recently dumped out of the Copa del Rey in spectacular fashion against a brilliantly bold Real Sociedad, a game which highlighted how easily this Los Blancos side can be opened up when not 100% tuned-in.
In the wake of Saturday night’s 1-0 defeat at the Estadi Ciutat de València, Marca proclaimed “There’s no leader without goal.” Madrid’s major problem continues to lie in attack, as evidenced by the fact that Benzema has registered two goals in two months and Sergio Ramos is joint second top scorer.
The shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo continues to loom, as expected, over the Casa Blanca. Monday’s AS reported how, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid failed to score in 8% of their 438 games. Without him, they failed to score in 23% of their 93 games since.
Make or break
“The week of truth,” read the front page of Marca on Monday morning ahead of what promises to be a decisive few days for Zinedine Zidane’s season. It all went to dust almost exactly one year ago as defeats to Ajax and Barcelona in cup competitions lead to Real Madrid’s season being given the last rites at the start of March.
Although Zidane wasn’t in the dugout for that calamitous stretch of games, he will be all too aware how quickly things can turn sour in the Madrid. Defeat to City and Barca in Sunday’s El Clasico will really have the alarm bells sounding.
Zidane will re-introduce Ferland Mendy into the starting lineup; he was recently omitted to avoid the dreaded fifth yellow card ahead of El Clásico. The return of the Frenchman is probably wise a move given that Marcelo’s last two starts have coincided with Madrid’s wobble; Mendy’s last start came in the hugely impressive 4-1 win at Osasuna.
“I don’t understand why the second top scorer at Real Madrid was playing with Castilla today.” The panelists on Sunday’s El Larguero were as perplexed as we were by Zidane’s decision to send Rodrygo to play for the B team despite him being one of the few attacking players who has shown an eye for goal. He received a second yellow card in that Segunda B game for celebrating in the face of the opposition goalkeeper’s and will miss El Clásico.
What’s gone wrong?
The excellent Alvaro Benito wrote in Monday’s AS: “Since the elimination in the cup to Real Sociedad, something has got lost along the way. Recent games have seen several positional errors in defence. Each player in defence has been acting and moving without considering their teammates or opponent.”
This was most evident for Celta Vigo’s equaliser at the Bernabeu where Sergio Ramos found himself in what one could call the “Claude Makelele hole”, about five metres ahead of where he should have been. A similar lack of discipline and concentration will be severely punished against Manchester City
Despite the drive to transition away from the Galactico model to the bulk invest in youth approach, not much has changed at the Bernabeu and the core of the team has pretty much stayed the same bar Ferland Mendy and Valverde due to Zidane’s loyalty to his tried and trusted men.
Eden Hazard’s first season in white looks to be over before it really begun and it feels like Madrid fans have already began thinking about their next Galactico.
But Wednesday night Champions League knockout football returns to Chamartín, European football’s grandest stage.
Back to basics
In the absence of goals, Zidane will look to solidity in the hope of grinding out a narrow win. It will be cagey and fascinating, and it would be surprising if this tie didn’t go right down to the wire in Manchester.
Casemiro and Fede Valverde form a formidable duo in the spine of the team and the return of this starting pair should ensure Madrid are much more mobile and robust. They also get forward more than many think.
No other team lives and breathes “La Champions” like Real Madrid, the trophy that all too often serves as a tonic to erase domestic disasters from memory. When the starry ball rolls, Real Madrid believe they can beat anyone.
Madrid fans don’t particularly fear City; they simply don’t command the same respect as a Bayern, Juve or Liverpool here in Spain – heavyweights of the European Cup – but nor do they underestimate Guardiola’s side.
Real Madrid’s best performances this season have come against PSG at home and at Camp Nou but they failed to win either. It’s likely that their lack of killer instinct in attack will again be the thing which proves to be their downfall over the two legs.