The Champions League is all Real Madrid have left
The good news is that it's the most important title of all
Real Madrid are now 12 points behind Catalan club Barcelona in La Liga. Photograph: Getty Images
Three games in seven days at the Santiago Bernabéu were set to define Real Madrid’s season. Two down with one left, it risks becoming a disaster.
Knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Barcelona, defeated 3-0 last Wednesday, Madrid were to all intents knocked out of the league title race, too, by the same opponents, a 1-0 defeat on Saturday leaving them 12 points off the top. Now they face Ajax knowing defeat would virtually end it all in March. “We’re hurt but there’s no time for laments,” Luka Modric said. “This game is vital for our season.”
The Champions League is all Real Madrid have left. The good news is that it the most important title of all and Europe has so often proved their elixir. Despite being overrun and outplayed for much of the first leg, they brought a 2-1 win back from Amsterdam, a scoreline secure enough that Sergio Ramos felt emboldened to seek a deliberate yellow card in order to serve a suspension for this match and be clear for the next round. Unfortunately he also felt emboldened to admit it publicly, resulting in an extra game’s ban. He will miss the quarter-final first leg, if Madrid get there.
That if is growing. Since Amsterdam Madrid have won one of four games – a deeply unimpressive 2-1 victory at Levante clinched with a penalty that should not have been. There is an insecurity about them, defeated three times in a row at home: by Girona and twice by Barcelona. They have lost eight league games, four at home, and were twice beaten by CSKA Moscow in the group stages. Last season they were eliminated from the Copa del Rey even earlier, finished 17 points off the top, and still won a third successive European Cup. The Bernabéu is a different place in the competition through which Madrid’s identity was forged.
That is the hope, anyway, and they cling to it. They need to. Santi Solari was named temporary coach in October and, although he was subsequently made permanent given the lack of credible alternatives and the need to comply with Federation rules, signing a contract until 2021, José Mourinho’s name is one of those floating. “Madrid have more suitors than Julia Roberts, ” Solari said, but he knows his chances of continuing are slim. He took over from Julen Lopetegui after they were beaten 5-1 in the clásico; he has now become the first Madrid manager to fail to win any of his first three clásicos.
A month ago it appeared that some things had improved under Solari. Madrid won the derby and there was a dynamism about them that was absent before. But the excitement about the impact of Sergio Reguilón and Vinicius has become a cause for concern: that it should be two players, aged 18 and 22, in their first seasons who most stand out says little for the others.
Familiar issues have resurfaced too, particularly the lack of goals. Ten times this season Madrid have failed to score. They have 23 fewer than at the same stage last season. Solari lamented a lack of “ruthlessness”, while Thibaut Courtois pointedly noted: “to win games you need to score…”
This is where Cristiano Ronaldo comes in – or goes out. “He’s a player any team would miss; looking for a replacement for him is almost impossible,” Modric said. “What the club tried to do was find a way for other players to fulfil his role. Not score 50 goals, but find two or three players who score fifteen to twenty goals, or ten goals. And we don’t have that. I think that has been our biggest problem.”
The player Madrid expected to take on responsibility was Gareth Bale and he is the most natural goalscorer they have, but the tide is turning: he is now the focus of a concerted campaign from which there seems no way out. Stripped down, some of the complaints are absurd: led by Marcelo and Thibaut Courtois, he stands accused of going to bed early and playing golf. They are hardly the most heinous crimes but there is something deeper: a sense that he has not integrated, nor reached his best level consistently, that while he has often been decisive he has rarely dominated. There has been frustration too with his injuries.
Bale’s agent, Jonathan Barnett, made his feelings very clear on Monday saying the player should be shown the “greatest of respect” by Madrid fans. “This generation of Real fans will be talking about Gareth’s goals for years to come,” he told Sky Sports News. “Frankly they should be ashamed of themselves. Gareth deserves the greatest of respect. The way the Real fans have treated Gareth is nothing short of a disgrace. In the six years he has been in Spain, he has won everything. He is one of the best players in the world. Those fans should be kissing his feet.”
That Bale has been stung was seen in his responses to goals against Atlético and Levante: the first time he made an up yours gesture towards the stands, the second time he shrugged off the congratulations of his teammate Lucas Vázquez. On Saturday he was whistled when he was withdrawn against Barcelona, having started for the third time in 10 games. Those historic moments have not been enough to give him immunity. Last season he scored arguably the greatest European Cup final goal. He might need to do something similar to win them back this season.