Anticipation and vision were among Zinedine Zidane’s traits as a player so perhaps it is no surprise that the Real Madrid boss foresaw the problem. Asked last month about the sacking of Ernesto Valverde by Barcelona, he said: “At big clubs, that’s how things are and nothing will change. I know that if we lose two games, I will be criticised.”
He was speaking from a position of considerable strength at the time and optimism only grew when Atletico Madrid were beaten at the start of the month. Karim Benzema scored the only goal of the game that day at the Bernabeu to extend Real Madrid’s lead at the top of La Liga to six points. The club were in the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey too.
But the two losses have followed and, predictably, so has the criticism.
Real Madrid were dumped out of the cup by Real Sociedad, conceding four times in an alarming defeat in front of their own fans. A late goal by lowly Celta Vigo earned them a draw at the Bernabeu too. Worse was to follow at the weekend when Levante repeated their trick of last season and shocked the 13-time European champions.
Suddenly, it is Barcelona top of La Liga.
This run of form can hardly have come at a more crucial time. Manchester City are the visitors to the Bernabeu on Wednesday before Barca come calling in the Clasico on Sunday. Win those two and the recent woe will be forgotten. Lose them both and this mini-crisis becomes full blown and the recriminations will begin in earnest for Zidane.
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It is almost a year since the Frenchman returned in the immediate aftermath of Champions League elimination against Ajax. The ship was steadied. Normal order seemingly restored. But with almost a year having passed since Zidane came back to Madrid, the concern now is that underneath it all very little has changed. The problems remain.
Certainly, most of the players do. The summer signings are not expected to play much of a part in this potentially defining week of Real Madrid’s season. Eden Hazard suffered a fractured ankle against Levante. Rodrygo is unavailable for selection for the Clasico due to suspension. It would be a surprise if Luka Jovic and Eder Militao start either game.
A familiar line-up means familiar issues. Ever since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure, the lack of a top goalscorer has been a concern and recent form appears to have ended any lingering belief that Benzema can fill the void. The forward’s goals have dried up and there is nobody else at the club who is doing enough to make up for that shortfall.
In fact, in the last 14 matches dating back to mid-December, no Real Madrid player has scored more than two goals. Benzema has failed to score in 10 of his last 12 appearances. Both Jovic and Gareth Bale, on paper, two of the most likely candidates to address this issue, were omitted from the squad against Levante. There is no obvious solution.
All of which puts greater strain on Madrid’s defence. This was something that Zidane sought to improve this season by making his team more difficult to play against. Competitive spirit returned under him but now there are fears that Madrid are too open again.
A run of four games without a clean sheet – the first time that has happened since the opening weeks of the campaign – is a worry. Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane remain a defensive partnership of considerable pedigree but there has been little protection. Behind them, goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was at fault for Levante’s winning goal.
How does Zidane solve the problem? There are wide options in Bale and Vinicius Junior but with confidence diminished and form in doubt, perhaps this is not the week for expansive football. More likely is that Madrid will look to put numbers in the middle of the pitch, as they did when naming five midfielders against Atletico earlier this month.
Expect Zidane to call on the big names to bail him out. Ramos and the rest have often saved their best for this competition. They will back themselves to ride out this season.
Just as they have before.
It is worth remembering that in Zidane’s final season of his first spell in charge, there was talk of crisis when beaten 3-1 by Tottenham at Wembley in November 2017. Marca called them easy to beat that night. El Pais saw it as proof that the team had gone.
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