Real Madrid’s troubled season faces a fresh challenge on Sunday night with a challenging trip to face sixth-placed Real Betis, who will be determined to boost their challenge for the top four with a victory.
Visiting boss Santiago Solari is facing a long list of absentees, and confidence is fragile following last weekend’s shock 2-0 home loss against lowly Real Sociedad.
Madrid did at least earn the boost of a 3-0 midweek cup win over Leganes, and they will be hoping to use that victory as a catalyst to reignite their season – but dangerous Betis will not make it easy.
Let’s take a look at the three key storylines ahead of the contest.
MADRID IN BATTLE FOR TOP FOUR?
After being crowned kings of Europe on four occasions in the last five years, it’s almost unthinkable that Real Madrid will fail to qualify for next season’s Champions League. But that is the prospect facing Los Blancos as their eventful campaign lurches from one setback to another.
La Liga has reached its midway point with the Bernabeu giants fifth in the table, just behind Alaves and a handful of points ahead of a batch of teams with top four aspirations. Their closest challengers are Sunday’s opponents Betis, who can narrow the gap on Solari’s men to just one point with victory at the Benito Villamarin.
Realistically, it’s unlikely that Alaves will be able to maintain their unexpectedly strong form throughout the entire campaign, especially following the loss of star midfielder Ibai Gomez to Athletic Bilbao. And the fact that Madrid are still close to the top four despite their disastrous season so far means they only need a slight improvement to return to the Champions League places.
But another defeat this weekend would tighten up the race considerably, leaving no doubt that Madrid are locked in a battle to avoid being dumped into the Europa League next season.
ISCO’S TIME TO SHINE?
The biggest individual loser in Madrid’s turbulent campaign has been Isco, who has been relegated from an undroppable star turn during his team’s Liga and European double 18 months to an unused afterthought under Solari.
The new coach has only given Isco two starts, and both of those were only in dead rubber cup ties against Melilla and CSKA Moscow. Solari’s repeated refusal to use the Spain international has made it plain that he simply does not want to pick Isco, although whether that is for sporting or political reasons is impossible to say.
On this occasion, though, a long list of absentees in the midfield and forward positions is making it almost impossible for Solari to avoid starting the former Malaga man: Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio, Mariano Diaz, Toni Kroos and Marcos Llorente are all injured, Lucas Vazquez is suspended and Brazilian starlet Vinicius Junior is a big doubt through illness.
Given those circumstances, Solari would have to come up with some very creative thinking to avoid playing Isco – such as repositioning Marcelo as a midfielder – and he will now surely receive his long-awaited opportunity to prove a point to the new manager. And if he takes that chance by producing a match-winning performance, Isco could yet have a future at Real Madrid.
BETIS AIM TO PROVE CREDENTIALS
Hosts Betis have sparkled at times this season, capable of producing exciting and free-flowing football which has delivered impressive results such as November’s 4-3 win at Barcelona, further enhancing the reputation of highly regarded coach Quique Setien.
However, they are also highly inconsistent and come into the game after a dip of form, failing to beat Eibar, Huesca or Real Sociedad in any of their last three encounters.
With their adherence to a clearly defined system, based around short passing and high pressing, Betis can be seen as an antithesis to Madrid’s reliance upon individual moments of brilliance rather than a coherent collective approach.
So this game is a real clash of styles and Betis will certainly not back down from their usual style of attempting to impose themselves upon the opposition high up the pitch. That could open up plenty of opportunities for Madrid to exploit on the counter-attack so it could be an exciting game with lots of chances at both ends.
Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos has said the situation between coach Santiago Solari and Isco is ‘complicated’ for the club.
Since Solari’s appointment as Los Blancos boss, Isco has fallen out of favour and has yet to start a league match under the Argentine. Against Leganes on Wednesday, the Spanish playmaker was again left out of the starting XI.
Speaking after winning a prize at the Siete Estrellas sports gala on Friday, Ramos said it’s a difficult situation for Isco.
“Not every situation is reconcilable, and this is a complicated situation,” Ramos told AS.
“At Real Madrid everything gets magnified, but every player wants to play and it is up to the Coach to select the players, it is not an easy job.
“The press are constantly writing about us, talking about us, creating rumours, so we need to do our best to accompany this.
“There is always talk of a potential crisis at Real Madrid if we do not win, and that is partly the reason we are so driven to win matches.
“We had a team meeting the other day and that is what we had to do, we will not shy away from this situation.”
If Real Madrid manager Santiago Solari knows his history, one period from his playing career might be playing on his mind right now.
The Spaniard’s final season at Santiago Bernabeu was the 2004/05 campaign. That season was the last time Madrid had three full-time managers in a single season – Jose Antonio Camacho resigned a month into the season, replacement, Mariano Garcia Remon, lasted only three months before being sacked and Vanderlei Luxemburgo took over for the rest of the season.
It’s unlikely that Solari remembers the season fondly, and if he does dwell upon it at all, he might be worrying over whether history is about to repeat itself, at his expense.
His own reign started well enough, as Solari became the first Real Madrid manager to win his first four games in charge in nine years after replacing the doomed Julen Lopetegui in October. He’s even won a trophy, as Los Blancos coasted to their third- straight FIFA Club World Cup triumph. And his overall record isn’t poor – 12 wins, three losses, one draw.
Yet it’s unlikely that anyone higher up at the club has been overly impressed. Solari has given them little reason to be. Most of those 12 wins have been unconvincing, as they’ve struggled to put away teams they should be beating with little fuss. And the losses have been galling: 3-0 to Eibar, 3-0 at home to CSKA Moscow – their worst-ever home defeat in the Champions League – and most recently, 2-0 at home to Real Sociedad this past weekend.
Not a good night for Santiago Solari 😬 pic.twitter.com/0g9OCO0XrA— Goal India (@Goal_India) January 7, 2019
Between Solari and Lopetegui, Madrid have already lost as many league games this season as they did during all of last season. And last season was one of the club’s poorest seasons in recent memory.
Madrid have managed just 26 league goals, middle of the road compared to the majority of the league and just better than half of Barcelona‘s total. Their goal difference of plus three is pedestrian – the top three of Barca, Atletico Madrid, and Sevilla are at 30, 13, and 13, respectively.
Players are underperforming, across the board. No offence to Vinicius Jr., but if an 18-year-old in his first season at the club is the team’s best player, there’s an issue.
Karim Benzema has hardly been the lead striker everyone was hoping he would be in the wake of Cristiano Ronaldo‘s departure, Marco Asensio’s development has stalled, as has Isco’s, Luka Modric looks far from Ballon d’Or form, and Gareth Bale remains in and out of the side due to injuries.
Sergio Ramos continues to talk a good game off the pitch, but his form has dipped ever so slightly on it. Marcelo’s defensive liabilities at left-back are no longer being made up for by attacking brilliance often enough. Casemiro often looks like he’s fighting a lone battle defensively, and when he’s having an off day, Madrid fall to pieces.
Isco is the most alarming case, because Solari doesn’t seem to trust the playmaker at all, and being denied an extended run in the side has lessened the Spaniard’s impact. When he takes to the pitch he still shows flashes of his talent, dribbling past players or pinging passes to anyone he can find, but all of it seems to now happen without him having any real influence in a game overall.
No Bale, No Kroos And Solari benched Isco again🤦♀️ pic.twitter.com/lKNunL1YCM— Tim Tím (@Tim_Tim2011) January 9, 2019
And while all this is happening, a slow-burning crisis that never seems to end, the spectre of Jose Mourinho has now been thrown into the mix. His sacking at Manchester United may have hit his reputation somewhat, but Madrid president Florentino Perez remains a fan and though he may have burned some bridges during his last spell in charge at the Bernabeu, his pedigree means he’ll still be a more trusted figure than Solari.
As things stand, extending the historic run of three straight Champions League titles looks unlikely. Ajax have enough in them to exploit Madrid’s vulnerabilities – they went unbeaten in a group that included Bayern Munich, holding the Bundesliga giants to two draws. And the 10-point gap to La Liga leaders Barcelona is more or less insurmountable, even in a surprisingly competitive league.
At the very least, bringing in Mourinho would be a shock to the system that could serve to jolt Madrid’s players back into form, after a season in which they’ve been drifting along from one crisis point to the next. He would instantly demand more.
It could combust, as it did at United, and at Madrid six years ago. But what’s the point in ambling along for the rest of the season?