Real Madrid have made a stuttering start to their La Liga campaign, dropping points in both of their first home games after an opening-day 3-0 win at Deportivo.
Their league start comes with mitigating circumstances – they’re yet to be able to field either their first-choice defence, with Raphael Varane injured and Sergio Ramos missing one game through suspension, or their first-choice attack, due to Cristiano Ronaldo’s five-game domestic ban.
Granted, Zinedine Zidane’s side should be able to overcome such obstacles, and it should be said that they have been architects of their own downfall during the two draws.
Against both Valencia and Levante, Madrid dominated the game in terms of shots, chances created, and possession, and, put simply, they should have won, both times. They were denied by some inspired goalkeeping and some inept finishing.
Real Madrid 1-1 Levante FT:
Chances created: 15-4
Red cards: 1-0
The champions held. pic.twitter.com/ME1Y0hnbJD
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 9, 2017
There’s no doubt that the two draws have raised concerns for the double European champions.
But what this also means is that so far, we’ve not seen the best of Real Madrid this season – and we know what their best is capable of. This is a superb side, arguably the best in Europe, and it’s on the verge of making history yet again.
Only three teams have won Europe’s premier club competition three times in a row: Bayern Munich and Ajax in the 1970s and Madrid themselves in the 1950s, when they won five in a row.
No one’s done it in the Champions League era – indeed, nobody had won two in a row until Madrid achieved that feat last season. And a look at their squad, and their stats, suggests there’s little to stop them from extending their run.
Dani Carvajal, Ramos, Varane, and Marcelo make up a formidable back line, and in Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, and Casemiro, they possess Europe’s best midfield. The Modric-Kroos axis’ stats are remarkable:
7336 – Luka Modrić has completed more passes than any other Real Madrid player in La Liga since his arrival in 2012/13. Birthday. pic.twitter.com/LiYr4E169F
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) September 9, 2017
Most chances created in the Champions League since 2012/13:
T. Kroos (125)
C. Ronaldo (103)
P. Lahm (103)
L. Messi (97) pic.twitter.com/kR1TN59cID
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 24, 2017
Ahead of them they have any two of Isco, Marco Asensio, Karim Benzema, and Gareth Bale to set off in attack, and, of course, Ronaldo.
If ten goals in the Champions League quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals seemed like an awesome feat, consider this: Ronaldo is probably even more motivated this year.
He’s got a World Cup coming up and he wants to be in top form for that. His Ballon D’or window is closing, with Neymar and the rest of the young brigade poised to take over soon, but he’ll likely draw level with Lionel Messi this year and thus could overtake his rival next year with one more devastating, end-of-season, Champions-League-winning run.
Oh, and thanks to a tax evasion case and that five-match ban for his red card in the Supercopa, he’s angry – and Ronaldo imitates the Hulk in more ways than his muscle-flexing goal celebrations.
And, more than any other competition he’s played in, the Champions League is Ronaldo’s stage.
Most Champions League goals since 2012/13 = Cristiano Ronaldo (65)
Most Champions League assists since 2012/13 = Cristiano Ronaldo (17) pic.twitter.com/o1sobF8awR
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 24, 2017
Yet again, Madrid are in a position to prioritise the Champions League. Sure, they know they should defend their La Liga crown as well, but, as always, European success carries extra significance.
Two in a row was special. Three in a row will elevate this team to legendary status, a team that can be talked of as among the best ever. Add it to their 2014 success, and it would be four Champions League titles in five years – and that would make this, undoubtedly, the Real Madrid era.
Who can stop that from happening?
Juventus, Bayern Munich, and Barcelona are the likeliest challengers. Atletico Madrid and perhaps Borussia Dortmund have an outside shot and Paris Saint-Germain, after landing Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, are the wild cards.
Put Madrid up against any of these sides, however, and you’d expect them to win.
Each one of them has their flaws. Barcelona’s midfield, so recently the bedrock of their success, cannot match Madrid’s anymore and Ousmane Dembele has a long way to go before he can be considered to be as much of a threat as Neymar was.
Bayern are an aging side and suddenly seem to lack cohesion under Carlo Ancelotti. Juventus have a suffocating defence and a brilliant attack, but will struggle again with Madrid’s pace, power, and incision. And, let’s not forget, all three have come away bruised and battered from recent encounters with Madrid.
As have Atletico Madrid, who in recent years have enjoyed the most success against Zidane’s side. Real Madrid set the record straight last year, outscoring their city rivals 8-3 across four La Liga and Champions League encounters, including two 3-0 wins.
PSG are the intriguing one. The Neymar-Mbappe-Cavani front three is fearsome, and they possess a quality midfield in Marco Verratti, Thiago Motta, and Adrien Rabiot.
However, time and again in Europe in recent seasons, they’ve revealed a defensive vulnerability which has allowed top sides to overpower them.
Madrid’s defence may not be able to completely contain the Parisians’ star-studded attack, but Los Blancos’ own strike force is more than capable of overwhelming PSG’s rearguard.
Hopefully the two sides meet in this year’s competition so that this is no longer a purely theoretical prediction, but until then, the reigning European champions have the edge.
Real Madrid have been demonstrably better than nearly all of their nearest challengers, and, on the back of winning two Champions League titles in a row, still have room to improve.
Are they set to go from great to legendary?
If Real Madrid’s early season troubles have taught us anything, it’s that Cristiano Ronaldo is still an extremely important player for Los Blancos.
Of course, that’s a pretty self-evident statement because any team on earth – even one as loaded with attacking talent as Zinedine Zidane’s crew – would miss the unique goal-poaching talents of the club’s all-time leading scorer.
But Saturday’s 1-1 home draw with Levante, when Madrid could muster no more than Lucas Vazquez’s scrambled goal despite creating hatfuls of chances and sending more than 30 crosses into the opposition penalty area, made it blindingly obvious just how crucial Ronaldo remains.
Considering his unquenchable appetite for goals, it’s pretty hard to imagine Los Blancos failing to win at the Bernabeu this weekend if Ronaldo had been playing.
Occupying the centre forward position Ronaldo would usually patrol, Gareth Bale alone had more than enough chances to give his team a comfortable victory, but he couldn’t take any of them. Ronaldo, as a far better finisher and a far more relentless goal hunter than Bale, surely would have taken at least one of those opportunities a day, with it, three points.
The importance of Ronaldo takes on even greater significance this season following the controversial summer sale of Alvaro Morata to Chelsea.
Last year, Zidane could and did opt to rest his Portuguese ace (or, as at present, lose him through suspension) and replace him with a similarly goal hungry striker.
Morata, it should not be forgotten, outscored both Bale and Benzema last season despite receiving far fewer minutes on the field of play, and allowing him to leave without signing a replacement was a surprisingly risky move from a club with such deep resources – even more so when you remember that James Rodriguez, another regular on the scoresheet, also departed and his replacement, Dani Ceballos, has never been particularly prolific.
The biggest problem for Zidane is that, unlike Ernesto Valverde at Barcelona with Lionel Messi, he will have to give Ronaldo plenty of rest this season.
Now 32 years old, Ronaldo has admitted he was only able to reach the end of last season in such flying form because he had been given a significant amount of time off over the course of the campaign thanks to Zidane’s rotation policy.
The same will apply over the coming months, so Zidane will have to leave out Ronaldo and hope that Karim Benzema and Bale – with the help of others such as Marco Asensio and Isco – deliver the goods on at least a dozen occasions in La Liga, where they have already surrendered a four point advantage to Barcelona and really can’t afford too many more slip-ups.
Of course, it would be ridiculous to write off reigning Spanish and European champions Real Madrid in mid-September, and the good news is that Bale and Benzema are unlikely to continue their current poor form for much longer (although the injury sustained by Benzema this weekend, worryingly, places an even heavier burden on Ronaldo’s shoulders).
But there is without doubt a genuine cause for concern. Ronaldo, it’s worth betting any money, will be good for around 30 goals again this season and he will play a match-winning role on many occasions. We know that.
But the question is what will happen when he’s not there, and so far the signs are not good.
Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema faces at least a month out with a hamstring injury, according to reports in Spain.
The France exile was substituted in the first half of Saturday’s disappointing draw with Levante at the Bernabeu, with Real later confirming he had injured his hamstring and “his recovery will continue to be assessed”.
Reports in the Spanish press estimate his absence at four to six weeks and he looks sure to at least sit out Real’s six matches in 19 days in LaLiga and the Champions League before next month’s international break.
The first of the league matches, against Real Sociedad next Sunday, comes with Cristiano Ronaldo still serving a five-match domestic suspension for pushing referee Ricardo de Burgos Bengoetxea in the Supercopa de Espana last month.
That leaves Borja Mayoral as the only specialist centre-forward available to coach Zinedine Zidane in San Sebastian.
The 20-year-old has played only six minutes of first-team football this season, as a late substitute in August’s draw with Valencia, and was not even on the bench against Levante.
Gareth Bale took Benzema’s place in the number nine role on Saturday but was unable to find the target. The likes of Marco Asensio, Lucas Vazquez or Isco could also be pressed into service in a more advanced role.
Ronaldo is available for Wednesday’s Champions League clash with Cypriot side APOEL and can make his domestic return a week later against Real Betis.
Benzema medical report.
— Real Madrid C.F.🇬🇧 (@realmadriden) September 9, 2017