Did you hear about the football manager who won five trophies in a calendar year but still managed to end it in danger of being fired?
Well, that might be harsh, but Zinedine Zidane knew what he was getting into when he took over at Real Madrid, and the French legend is on borrowed time after his team’s capitulation against Barcelona on Saturday.
It wasn’t the fact that Real lost the game that was so concerning, or even the scoreline: it was the way that they competed well in the first half but then totally collapsed after the break.
If Barca had been clearly superior throughout, it would have been easier to accept. “Well, they are just better than us,” could be the shrugged response from Madridistas.
But that wasn’t the case, because Real were the better team during the opening period, dominating possession and territory, and creating a handful of decent chances to take the lead including a header from Karim Benzema which hit the post and a tragicomic ‘airball’ mishit from Cristiano Ronaldo.
After the interval, however, there was only one team in it. The fact that Dani Carvajal was sent off is immaterial – it did not change the game, because Barca were already well on top by then and the right-back staying on the field wouldn’t have made much difference.
So what happened? The obvious observation is that two key Barcelona players, who had been kept quiet in the first half, were able to take over: Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi.
In the opening period, Busquets had been man marked by Toni Kroos, who was playing further forward than usual thanks to the inclusion of Mateo Kovacic, whose two-man tag team with Casemiro on Messi worked pretty well (although the Argentine did still create two chances for Paulinho).
From the 46th minute onwards, though, it was as though two completely different teams were playing and suddenly Busquets and Messi were granted the freedom of the immaculate Bernabeu turf, with the result that Busquets sprang the move for the first goal, Messi created the chance for Luis Suarez that eventually led to the second, and it could have been a lot more as the Blaugrana found gaps with alarming ease every time they came forward.
Suarez!! What a beautiful Barcelona goal pic.twitter.com/b3WrTZZiFS
— True Soccer Life (@TrueSccrLife) December 23, 2017
Why there was such a major change to the pattern of the game is hard to fathom. Were Kroos, Kovacic and Casemiro tired out by their first half exertions? Did Barca make tweaks – like playing Messi deeper and Andres Iniesta more centrally – to affect the balance of play? Or was it just one of those things that can happen without anybody knowing why?
We can speculate, but Zidane had to do more than speculate: he had to notice, react, and change. But he didn’t. Throughout the entire 45 minutes his team were dominated, with the fact that even Aleix Vidal managed to score – his first league goal since February and first ever for Barca away from home – serving to really rub in just how much better the visitors had become while the home team failed to respond.
Real, though, are not really that much worse than Barca – or, at least, they shouldn’t be. We saw that towards the end of last season, when they deservedly won La Liga and then thrashed Juventus 4-1 in the Champions League Final. We also saw it in the first half on Saturday, when they were marginally the better team.
But in the same way that they lost their way in the second period at the Bernabeu this weekend, Los Blancos have also lost their way in general this season and Zidane appears to be unable to do anything about it.
Before long, he won’t get many more chances. Club President Florentino Perez is not noted for his patience, once firing Vicente Del Bosque the day after he won the league and also axing popular Carlo Ancelotti a year after winning the Champions League, and the trophies taken by Zidane in the past will count for nothing if he doesn’t look capable of delivering more in the near future.
Realistically, Perez would be taking drastic measures even by his own standards if he dismissed Zidane now, and the Frenchman probably has a few weeks to show that he really is capable of turning things around.
But then, on 14 February, comes the crunch date: Real vs Paris St Germain in the first leg of the Champions League last 16.
If Neymar, Mbappe, Cavani and co are able to dismantle Zidane’s men in the same way that Barcelona did this weekend, his time will probably be up.
Here we take a look at the player ratings for Real Madrid.
Navas 6. Made a great reflex save to tip Paulinho’s powerful first half strike over the bar. No chance for the first two goals but should have kept out Vidal’s shot in stoppage time.
Carvajal 7. Made an early statement of intent by winning the corner for Ronaldo’s disallowed goal, and continued to get forward regularly. Perhaps his best team’s best player until he was rightly sent off for a deliberate handball.
Varane 5. Was often troubled by Suarez’s aggressive running, looking harried and uncertain especially in the second half when his team’s midfield went missing.
Ramos 5. His frustration was summed up when he was booked for an ugly swipe on Suarez. Came close to scoring with a late shot at the near post.
Marcelo 4. A frequent attacking threat in the first half, delivering the cross for Benzema’s header against the upright. But he could have done a lot more to prevent Barca’s opener and was defensively abject in the second period.
Modric 6. Excellent between the lines of midfield and attack in the first half, but nowhere to be seen when Barca took over in the second.
Casemiro 5. Clumsy in possession and failed to do his main job in the second half, giving his defence scant protection from Barca’s repeated attacks through the middle.
Kovacic 5. A surprise selection in the centre of midfield and initially did a tidy job in preventing Barca from building possession, but he was terrible in the second half as Barca ran rings around him.
Kroos 6. The selection of Kovacic allowed him to play in a more advanced role than usual and he got into several good positions in the first half, but – like the rest of Madrid’s midfield – he disappeared after the break.
Benzema 5. Linked play nicely in the first half and unlucky not to score with a glanced header against the right post. Invisible after the break and sacrificed by Zidane when Carvajal was sent off.
Ronaldo 6. Always a goal threat. In the first half he had a header disallowed for offside, fluffed a great chance with an air shot and forced ter Stegen into a low save with an angled drive. But he contributed next to nothing outside the box.
Nacho 5. Introduced after Carvajal’s red card, slotting into the vacant right-back slot but looking ill at ease as Barca regularly threatened down his flank.
Bale 7. Came on for the last 15 minutes and did well down the right, showing plenty of purpose and forcing two saves from Ter Stegen with decent efforts.
Asensio 5. Appeared from the bench at the same time as Bale but had no impact.
Los Blancos are ending the year in style – lifting the FIFA Club World Cup title in Abu Dhabi on Saturday seeing them claim a quintuple of silverware for the first time in a calendar year.
Domestically though, Real are eight points behind leaders Barca, down in fourth place. But history was made at Zayed Sports City Stadium, as Real drew level on three Club World Cup titles with the Blaugrana – the famed Spanish rivals jointly hold the most.
In addition, Madrid became the first club to retain the trophy in its current guise.
Adding the Club World Cup to the Champions League, La Liga, UEFA Super Cup and Spanish Super Cup provides a boost as Real head into the first Clasico clash of the season with Barca on Saturday hoping to reduce the gap – although Germany midfielder Kroos claims he and his colleagues need no special motivation for a “special” game.
“For this game (Clasico) you don’t need anything before, any special motivation,” he said when asked after Saturday’s 1-0 win in the final over Copa Libertadores champions Gremio of the importance of the win heading into the Barca clash.
“It’s better of course to go back to Madrid with a good feeling, but this game is special, whatever happened before.”
Pressed on pursuing Barca in the new year and looking ahead to a mouthwatering Champions League last 16 tie with French giants Paris Saint-Germain in February, the 2014 World Cup winner added: “The secret to more success next year is motivation and hunger.
“We are a little bit behind in the league and maybe we can close the gap in a few days, but we will still be behind so it will be difficult to win the league. But we will try, for sure.
“We have the next round of the Champions League too, which is 50/50, so it will be difficult. We won it back to back but it’s never easy to do. But we will try. That’s all we can do.
“(I’m looking forward to facing PSG) because the experience from the past year is you have to beat the best to win this competition.
“We did last year. We played Bayern (Munich), Atletico Madrid, Juventus, who put out Barcelona. You need to play the best and the best is always a challenge, and I like that.”
Kroos revealed victory in the Emirates was the easiest of the five accolades earned by mighty Madrid this year, but he said glory in the toughest competition, their arduous road to Champions League triumph, led them to the UAE.
“It’s been a special year. Five trophies is crazy. It means a lot because we represent the club and it’s great if you do it in a good way,” said the 27-year-old.
“Maybe at the end you can say this is the easiest title to win, the biggest challenge is to arrive here because you have to win the Champions League.
“At the end of the year though it’s never easy because you have a long trip here, an important game, and the ones beforehand. As always, when you win another trophy, it’s always special.”
Real claimed back to back Club World Cup titles thanks to talisman Cristiano Ronaldo’s sole goal in the capital – a thumping free-kick eight minutes into the second half.
The goal created further history for the Portuguese powerhouse, who stretched his lead at the top of the competition’s highest ever scorers.
Ronaldo, 32, has seven goals in eight Club World Cup matches – two more than Barca duo Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi, and Monterrey’s Cesar Delgado.
Ronaldo was criticised by Argentine great Maradona and even Gremio coach Renato Portaluppi leading into the Club World Cup – ex-Brazil international Portaluppi claiming the five-time Balon d’Or winner was not a better player than him.
But Kroos laughed off criticism of his teammate.
“I don’t know what they said but this is good for the press,” said Kroos.
“At the end we know on the pitch he tries to help us and score. He did this in both matches and we don’t need to speak about how important he is for us.”