Struggling Real Madrid risk falling further behind in La Liga after a cheeky late chip from Pablo Fornals saw Villarreal escape with a 1-0 win on Saturday, their first ever victory at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Fornals struck with three minutes left to leave Zinedine Zidane‘s wasteful side fourth and a whopping 16 points behind runaway league leaders Barcelona, a deficit which will turn into 19 should Barca win at Real Sociedad on Sunday.
Here are three things we learned from the encounter.
SCORING PROBLEMS HAUNT LOS BLANCOS
This wasn’t a particularly bad performance from Real Madrid. Their attitude certainly can’t be reproached after they played with focus and intensity, and there was a generally solid look to the team as two players who have been singled out for criticism – Casemiro and Marcelo – returned closer to their usual standards.
The fact that Villarreal hardly created any chances speaks for itself, and although Madrid were caught out badly on the counter-attack for the winning goal that could happen to any team chasing a late winner.
But the problem for Madrid, without doubt, is a lack of firepower in front of goal. Considering the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the most potent goalscorers in the game’s history, that’s something of a surprise, but the Portuguese star is continuing to misfire by snatching at chances and lacking his usual ruthless arrogance in front of goal.
At least Ronaldo looks like scoring, though. Nobody else got into dangerous positions often enough to threaten Villarreal keeper Sergio Asenjo, whose best save came from a 25-yard piledriver from Marcelo. With the January window still open for a couple of weeks, Madrid could badly use a goalscorer to give more support to Ronaldo…perhaps while Perez is calling Pochettino, he might like a word with Harry Kane as well?
VILLAREAL SHOW LA LIGA’S DEPTH
In the eternal debate over the respective quality of the Premier League and La Liga, the accusation is often made that the Spanish competition is a ‘two team league’ with only Barcelona and Real Madrid worth watching.
That argument overlooks the fact that Atletico Madrid won the competition three years ago, and more recently that this season Real have dropped points against Real Betis, Girona, Levante, Celta Vigo, Athletic Bilbao and now Villarreal – exactly the kind of teams snottily decried by those who believe English football is the only variety worth watching.
Villarreal, as they showed on Saturday, are a very good team. In Pablo Fornals and Rodri they boast two of Spain’s best young midfielders who would already be starters for many international teams, while Carlos Bacca remains an outstanding centre forward (the kind Madrid could do with right now) and Asenjo is an excellent shot-stopper who enjoyed a redemptive afternoon by making several great saves in his first game at the Bernabeu since suffering a long-term knee injury against the same opposition last season.
This way Madrid are being punished for their dip in form makes it clear: there is plenty of quality in La Liga away from the ‘big two’, if you can be bothered to look.
ZIDANE LIVING ON BORROWED TIME
The uncomfortable truth facing Zinedine Zidane as he digests his team’s latest setback is that anybody else would probably have been fired by now.
A first half of the season yielding just 32 points – closer to the relegation zone than first place if league leaders Barcelona win at Real Sociedad tonight – is simply unacceptable at this uniquely demanding club, whose president Florentino Perez dispensed with Vicente del Bosque and Fabio Capello immediately after they won the league title.
Zidane gained an unusual amount of credit not only by winning the La Liga and Champions League double last season, but also with an outstanding playing career to make himself as close to untouchable as anyone at the Bernabeu possibly could be.
But even Zidane’s time will run out eventually, and it’s hard to see the Frenchman lasting until the end of the season if his team is knocked out of the Champions League by Paris St Germain next month. The end could come even sooner than that if Perez believes his club’s European dreams can only be saved by a new man at the helm, and Mauricio Pochettino may be receiving a phone call in the next few days.
Real Madrid start this weekend 16 points behind great rivals and La Liga leaders Barcelona and face a tricky test against high-flying Villarreal on Saturday at the Bernabeu.
Here, we look at three key talking points ahead of the clash in the Spanish capital.
IS THE BERNABEU STILL WITH ZIDANE?
Throughout Real Madrid’s troubled season, the club’s fans have on the whole stuck with boss Zinedine Zidane, whose iconic playing career at the Bernabeu and hugely impressive first 18 months as manager put an unusual amount of credit in the bank.
But now that credit is running out, and Zidane’s notable tetchiness under intense questioning from the media on Friday suggested that the tide is turning. And if the mood of the media reflects the mood of the fans, the Frenchman is in more than a little bit of trouble.
Although it’s not yet being suggested that Zidane is on the verge of being fired, another poor performance and dropped points today would leave him in an extremely vulnerable position. The opening stages will be crucial in determining the mood – an early goal would be welcome reassurance that redemption is possible, but a slow start could get nerves jangling…and see Zidane pushed further towards the precipice.
MIDFIELD MATTERS FOR MADRID
There are problems throughout the Madrid team, with no player scoring more than four league goals, the defence looking almost constantly vulnerable and the midfield failing to adequately connect the two ends of the pitch.
At least, though, the defence and attack more or less picks itself, with injuries ensuring that Gareth Bale will team up with Cristiano Ronaldo in attack while Raphael Varane is partnered by Nacho in the centre of defence.
In midfield, though, Zidane has a real selection dilemma because none of the established starters are playing particularly well and he has options – if he chooses to use them. Casemiro is looking clumsy, Isco’s inventive powers have waned, and even Luka Modric and Toni Kroos – previously untouchable starters for four years – are facing heavy criticism.
So does Zidane turn to Lucas Vazquez, who scored both goals in the midweek 2-2 cup draw with Numancia? Is it time to introduce Marco Asensio, the boy wonder who Zidane doesn’t seem to really trust? Or should he give more chances for Mateo Kovacic to liven things up with his energetic running?
There are plenty of possibilities, but Zidane just needs to find one which works.
DANGEROUS VILLARREAL ON THE UP?
Zidane could have certainly been handed an easier fixture on his potential crisis weekend, because Villarreal are a good team who appear to be heading in the right direction after a poor start to the season and a mid-campaign wobble a few weeks ago.
The Yellow Submarine are heading to the Bernabeu in sixth place, having put together a three-game unbeaten run in La Liga either side of Christmas, conceding just one goal in the process. Even worse for Madrid, they have become particularly solid away from home, winning three and drawing two of their last six away league games.
Although leading scorer Cedric Bakambu won’t make the trip to the capital after agreeing a mega-bucks move to China, Villarreal still possess plenty of talent especially in the home team’s problem area of midfield, where players like Pablo Fornals, Samu Castillejo, Manu Trigueros and ex-Madrid winger Denis Cheryshev are more than capable of troubling any opposition. If Villarreal play well, it could be another tough afternoon for Zidane’s men.
Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane believes his players have responded positively to clear-the-air talks ahead of Saturday’s La Liga clash with Villarreal.
Real reached the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey – where they will face Leganes – in midweek, but lie 16 points behind rivals Barcelona in the league.
“It’s always about looking for positives,” Zidane told a pre-match press conference in quotes reported on the club’s website.
“I’ve seen a change in the team since our chat. Now we have to reflect that on the pitch. We’re not struggling to find our play, we’re just lacking the continuity we need to get our confidence back, and we can only find that by winning games.
“Winning is the most important thing and we’ve found it hard of late, but we’ll keep going. We’re still alive in every competition and having watched the games back, I don’t agree with a lot of the criticism, but I have to accept it. There are still positive elements in this team.
“The difficult thing is to avoid reading and listening to what’s being said. That’s not at all easy in this day and age but you have to try. All that’s being said about Real Madrid at the moment is negative, but I, and many others, don’t share that view. The situation is what it is, but we must look for positives; we’re still alive in every competition. We’re not in as bad a place as people say. We need to find that positive energy among the group and keep moving forward.
“I’m not worried about the (atmosphere at) Bernabeu. We want people to come and cheer us on, which is what they’ve always done. We can’t focus all on the negative. We need our fans. Just as when we’re playing well we need to keep our feet on the ground, when we’re going through a tough spell we need them to help us out.”
Villarreal lie sixth in La Liga, just four points behind Real and Zidane added: “Our concentration will be at 100 per cent because we’re up against very good opposition, who are having a fantastic season. They have not lost many games.
“We’re going to try all we can to win the game. That’s our goal and it’s what we’re preparing for. They know how to use the ball very well and they cover a lot of ground. They’re a positive team and their results reflect that.”
Karim Benzema has resumed training following injury but will not be rushed back into action.
Villarreal coach Javi Calleja will be without suspended defender Victor Ruiz for the trip to Madrid, while the likes of Bruno, Roberto Soriano and Andres Fernandez remain sidelined through injury.
— Real Madrid C.F.🇬🇧 (@realmadriden) January 12, 2018