Following back-to-back defeats away from home against Girona and Tottenham in the Champions League, Real Madrid have entered, for the second time this season, a mini-crisis.
Whichever way you look at it, the reigning La Liga and European champions have struggled to hit the heights of last season, with many underlying issues and indeed evident ones on the pitch increasing the pressure on Zinedine Zidane.
Here, we take a look at three key questions as Real prepare to host minnows Las Palmas at home on Sunday night in La Liga.
What have you made of Real in the past two matches?
Two defeats in two have piled the pressure on the Frenchman, who has bared the full force of criticism in wake of his team’s indifferent and uncharacteristic first few months of the season. While Zidane, a back-to-back Champions League-winning coach (as if we needed reminding), had every right to fire shots back at the Madrid-based media this week – claiming a bit sarcastically he had not become the world’s worst coach overnight – the only way he can put things right is on the Bernabeu pitch.
Given Las Palmas are loitering lowly in the relegation zone, this would normally be a foregone conclusion but let’s not forget the Whites have been held on home turf by Levante and Valencia and been beaten by Real Betis this term.
Real have struggled to break down lesser sides and keep things tight at the other end of the pitch, but the fact they’ll be hurting after their mauling at Wembley will work in Zidane’s favour.
A comprehensive win against a team that has shipped more goals than any other in La Liga will lift the spirits and raise the confidence levels in the pursuit of table-toppers Barcelona ahead of the international break.
A chronic shortage of energy, hustle and bustle to do the game’s dirty work and a questionable lack of motivation have all been running themes, coursing through the Whites.
There’s been an evident drop in motivation this season which in part is completely understandable given what Real have achieved in the past two years – but still, while physically the sheer weight of games and travel has been draining, wearing the Madrid shirt has demands which remain constant. Any let up is just not accepted by Madridistas and is a spark they need to get back quickly.
Tactically, the famed midfield axis of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, along with Isco, have all gone off the boil somewhat and seemingly been overrun by more competitive and physical midfields. Passing has been a miss as well as creativity with the supply line to Cristiano Ronaldo leaving Real’s legendary focal point isolated.
The indifferent form of Marcelo and other injuries at full-back to the likes of Dani Carvajal have disrupted the defence, with players getting easily pulled out of position. Support staff in Nacho and Achraf Hakimi haven’t been able to fill the void either.
In addition, the backline hasn’t been marshalled as stringently by captain Sergio Ramos as we are normally accustomed to. The defending for Dele Alli’s second goal being proof of that.
With the quality Real have, these are seemingly quick fixes but the truth in the matter is that they have been bubbling above the surface all season. Zidane’s tactical acumen has been called into question and he needs to find a way of quickly restoring the Real Madrid swagger we’re used to.
Real Madrid fans have never been shy of waving handkerchiefs and whistling their team if things aren’t going well, and while the club’s unparallelled recent success has been appreciated by all, the supporters just demand no let-up in winning.
It’s always been down to the players to lift the crowd and get them off of their seats. This is not news for Zidane, a man who despite his legendary status as a player at the club, was part of a Galactico team that struggled for form and trophies in the middle of the previous decade.
A fast start is needed to galvanise the home support and a smattering of goals will get everything back on track.
The clash between Madrid and Spurs at the Santiago Bernabeu on the last Champions League matchday ended in a 1-1 stalemate, leaving both sides level on points, goal difference, and goals scored atop Group H. A win for either side could guarantee a place in the knockout stages.
Here are the main talking points for Real Madrid ahead of the game.
WHICH REAL MADRID WILL TURN UP?
It’s been a strange start to the season for Real Madrid. At times they have looked every inch the reigning Spanish and European champions they are, notably in the demolition job of Borussia Dortmund earlier in the group stages. But they have also delivered some extremely lethargic and disjointed performances such as Sunday’s shocking 2-1 defeat at lowly Girona.
So which version of Real Madrid will we see at Wembley? Their recent inconsistency has nothing to do with the identity of the men on the pitch, with coach Zinedine Zidane calling upon largely the same set of players who were so brilliant towards the end of last season.
Perhaps, instead, it’s a question of attitude and, more specifically, motivation. It’s perhaps no accident that Madrid were enduring similar struggles at this time last season before building up to a big climax, and the suggestion that they are ‘pacing themselves’, even if unconsciously, could go a long way towards revealing their recent form.
Zidane regularly describes the season as a marathon rather than a sprint, and justifies his rotation policy by insisting he wants to make sure all his players are in prime condition when the end of the season rolls around.
But although it’s true that no trophies are won in November, after Sunday’s slip-up they need a reaction and surely playing in one of the world’s most famous stadia in a high-profile Champions League fixture will be all the motivation they need. We can safely expect a very different version of the team that struggled at Girona.
KANE VS RONALDO SHOOT-OUT?
A significant factor behind Madrid’s dropped points in La Liga has been the unusual lack of goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, who have shockingly only registered one league goal apiece all season.
Benzema has never been particularly prolific, generally participating more in his build-up play than his goalscoring, but Ronaldo’s lack of goals is most unusual and unexpected considering the stunning form he produced at the end of last season.
There are two ways of reading Ronaldo’s current travails: you can argue that either it’s a signal that, at the age of 32, he is losing his powers and will never be the same again; or that it’s a brief and short-term dip which he will soon overcome and return to his usual goal-per-game output. Only the very brave, surely, would be prepared to back against Ronaldo and opt for the former.
Of course, going up against Ronaldo will be another of the world’s most high-profile goal-getters, Harry Kane, whose brilliant recent form is sharply contrasting with the Portuguese’s problems.
Kane will be eager to get back in action after missing the weekend trip to Manchester United through injury. But Ronaldo will be just eager to ensure that he is not outshone and so, if this is even possible, the Madrid star will be even more goal hungry than normal.
POCHETTINO TO FURTHER ENHANCE REPUTATION?
More than Kane or any of the Tottenham players, Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino is receiving plenty of press in Spain ahead of the Wembley showdown after being heavily linked with a future appointment at the Bernabeu.
The recent claim that Madrid president Florentino Perez already knows the identity of the team’s next coach has sparked serious speculation that two plus two equals Pochettino, especially as the revelation came so soon after the draw between the teams at the Bernabeu.
The Argentine coach’s success in turning Tottenham from stragglers into major trophy contenders has greatly impressed Perez, who was already an admirer of Pochettino following his three years in charge of Espanyol – a club with whom Madrid enjoy friendly relations – at the start of his managerial career.
Tottenham’s calm and controlled display at the Bernabeu further enhanced his credibility among Madrid fans and decision-makers alike, and another strong showing by his team at Wembley could see his future pointing even more firmly towards Los Blancos.
The Portugal forward has scored only one goal in six league games so far as Real lie third and trail their table-topping arch-rivals by eight points after 10 games.
As Real prepare to face Tottenham at Wembley in the Champions League, though, is it too soon to write off the FIFA player of the year?
If anything, this competition has been Ronaldo’s saving grace in his otherwise slow start to the season.
He scored in his side’s previous clash with Spurs, a 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu two weeks ago, with two goals against both Borussia Dortmund and APOEL Nicosia giving him five Champions League goals already.
A hat-trick for his country against the admittedly-weak opposition of the Faroe Islands was another indication he still possesses his shooting boots.
Ronaldo also scored in his brief, dramatic appearance in the Spanish Supercopa against Barcelona, a brilliant strike which was quickly followed by a needless red card and a foolish shove of referee Ricardo De Burgos Bengoetxea which landed him a five-match domestic ban.
That has limited his playing time this season – but as luck would have it, it almost exactly matches his involvement by this stage of last season as he eased his way back from an injury in the Euro 2016 final.
His overall scoring record so far this season is seven goals in 842 minutes for Real, or 0.75 goals per 90 minutes excluding stoppage time.
That matches up almost exactly with his seven in 856 minutes up to the end of October (0.74 per 90) last season… when he finished with 25 league goals and 38 in total for Real.
The warning signs are still there, though – Ronaldo has fewer league goals in more appearances for Real this season than either Gareth Bale, also often criticised, or youngster Dani Ceballos who has already matched his tally from LaLiga last season. Isco and Marco Asensio have three each.
The overall trend is also slightly concerning, particularly since he turned 30 in 2015. Ronaldo had 13 goals for his club by Halloween in the 2015-16 season, at a rate of exactly one per 90 minutes, and 20 and 18 by this stage of the two campaigns prior to that.
The 20 in 2014-15 came in 1,064 minutes at a rate of 1.69 goals per 90. He finished that campaign with a scarcely believable 61 goals in all club competitions, and both 2013-14 and 2015-16 with 51.