Real Madrid won La Liga only three months ago because of their defensive steel and a relentless will to win but ahead of Saturday’s Clasico against Barcelona, they appear to be a team unravelling.
After losing 1-0 at home to Cadiz for the first time in their history last weekend, Madrid fell 3-2 in the Champions League on Wednesday to Shakhtar Donetsk, who had 10 first team players and nine staff missing due to coronavirus infections.
Just as Cadiz had waltzed almost at will through the same Madrid defence that conceded only 25 league goals last season, Shakhtar wreaked havoc in Zinedine Zidane’s back-line and on another night would have scored more.
The three goals they did chalk up in 13 wild first-half minutes was the same number Madrid shipped in their first nine games following La Liga’s resumption last season.
Lethargic performances, where the pressing was slack and the passing imprecise, suggest this team is not as tuned in as they were in June and July.
“We lacked a bit of everything but above all our confidence, which is the most important thing,” said Zidane.
In some ways, perhaps, this is not a regression but a return to form for Zidane’s Madrid, who have often excelled with a trophy in sight but floundered during the day-to-day grind.
Before lockdown in Spain compressed the run-in and sharpened their focus, Madrid were already a team suffering from inconsistency.
In February and March, they won only three times in eight games, slipping up against opponents such as Real Sociedad, Celta Vigo, Levante and Real Betis.
This time last year, Madrid had just lost away at Real Mallorca to make it five wins from 11 games and leave Zidane on the brink of the sack.
It is to Zidane’s credit they turned their form around, doing just enough to keep pace with Barcelona and then pull away from them when it mattered.
Zidane extracted the maximum from an ageing squad that he was promised would be refreshed but, two years on, still feels all too familiar.
Like Barcelona, Madrid have found the financial implications of the pandemic made swift or serious change impossible.
The transfer window was largely a cost-reducing exercise for Spain’s leading clubs and their quality has certainly stagnated, as Atletico Madrid demonstrated on Wednesday in their 4-0 humbling at the hands of Bayern Munich.
It means it might not be a vintage Clasico this weekend but for Madrid it has become more important now, and for Zidane too.
Two defeats in a week is one thing but three, the last of them against Barcelona, would the alter the dynamic.
“I’m the coach, I have to find the solution, I didn’t find it today and it was difficult for my players,” said Zidane on Wednesday night.
The demanding schedule appeals to Zidane’s inclinations to rotate but he may have learned this week that his squad has its limitations.
Ferland Mendy has proven himself a significantly more reliable option at left-back than Marcelo. Casemiro is the only suitable defensive midfielder. Luka Jovic is not able to cover for Karim Benzema.
Sergio Ramos should return as well against Barcelona, after being left out of the loss to Shakhtar with a knee injury. Madrid have lost seven out of their last eight Champions League games without him.
If Zidane has Ramos and his best team available, it would not be a surprise to see them respond at Camp Nou, where Barca will have the pressure to assert themselves as the home team, but without the spur of a home crowd.
And Madrid will have critics to answer and pressure to feed off. Doubts, though, will remain about their stomach for the fight long-term. Cadiz and Shakhtar have made sure of that.
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