REAL MADRID FACE THEIR TOUGHEST BATTLE YET
Zinedine Zidane had been insistent that his Real Madrid side’s long unbeaten run didn’t mean anything.
As their bench emptied following Sergio Ramos’ late header against Sevilla in the Copa del Rey, with the celebrations spilling over onto the touchline involving both the French boss and his entire squad and staff, you would be forgiven for thinking that perhaps he wasn’t telling the whole truth.
That stoppage-time contribution from Ramos made it 40 consecutive games without defeat, with the scenes on the sideline coming in a situation where Real Madrid didn’t actually need to score in order to go through into the next round of the competition. The aggregate scoreline was enough, but this squad has the desire to win every contest in which they play outright.
The mentality that Zidane has managed to nurture at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu since taking the reins is uncompromising and stretches into every aspect of Real Madrid’s footballing identity this season. Much has been said about an ego-filled dressing room, but thus far Zidane has perfected the chemistry within a high-pressure environment.
Los Blancos were asked to make another trip down to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan four days later, as the LaLiga fixture computer dictated that Sevilla would once again be Zidane’s foe. Seeking a fresh approach, he rejigged his starting line-up into a 3-5-2 formation, but an own goal from Sergio Ramos and a late strike from substitute Stevan Jovetic saw Real Madrid throw away a 1-0 lead after the 85th-minute mark.
Their unbeaten run was ended at 40 games, somehow a disappointing finish to a national record-setting spree.
“It was going to happen and it won’t change anything,” Zidane told reporters. “What I’m asking the fans is to stick with us, we don’t need to change anything because of one game.”
Questions were asked, not least due to Zidane’s new system not getting the best of his strike force of Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo. Sergio Ramos claimed that he didn’t deserve to score the own goal, and that nobody should be pointing fingers – but nobody came to Danilo’s aid after the Brazilian recently netted at the wrong end in the Copa.
For the first time this campaign, cracks were beginning to show. Celta Vigo were the next team to come up against a Real Madrid side who would either be reeling after Jovetic’s knock-out blow or newly motivated to start a unbeaten run from scratch, and arrived at the Bernabeu off the back of a five-game winning run of their own.
Goals from Iago Aspas and Jonny Castro ensured that Eduardo Berizzo’s men rubbed salt in Los Blancos’ wounds in a 2-1 win, resigning Real Madrid to consecutive defeats for the first time since November 2015.
“Sevilla did us damage,” Casemiro explained post-match. That much has been plainly clear.
The question remains as to how deep the wounds will run. Dani Carvajal has been sidelined for a month at right-back with a hamstring problem, leaving Zidane to choose between Danilo and Nacho in his place, less than ideal given that Real Madrid have conceded an unprecedented seven goals in their last three outings.
Gareth Bale, Isco, Pepe and James Rodriguez have all picked up knocks recently, with only Nacho and Mariano Diaz avoiding injury lay-offs for Real Madrid throughout a high-octane first half of the LaLiga campaign. In this situation, adversity needs to breed togetherness.
“We are closer than ever, now we are stronger than during our long run without a defeat,” the club’s second captain Marcelo announced after the Celta loss.
Malaga are the next team in the crosshairs for Real Madrid, and the Andalucian side appear to be the perfect remedy for a tough week for all involved at the Bernabeu. Real Madrid are a point clear of second-placed Sevilla, but have a game in hand, making a kick-start in form vital.
Neither Juande Ramos nor newly appointed coach Marcelo Romero have managed to inspire an away win from their charges since the outset of the season, as Malaga have failed to win a league match in any given stadium since November. It should be music to Los Blancos’ ears.
“A week ago when we drew with Sevilla we were the best in the world, now we are the worst,” second-choice goalkeeper Kiko Casilla explained this week.
A win is required to stop the negativity, alleviating the pressure in the players’ minds, but it can only be overturned on the pitch. If their winless run is left at two matches, it can be dismissed as a momentary blip, but in modern football three consecutive losses will be considered a full-blown crisis.