Flashback to less than a month ago, and Real Madrid were a club in crisis. They had followed up winning the Club World Cup with a draw against Villarreal and a loss to Real Sociedad, and Santiago Solari seemed to be inching closer to the sack.
Jose Mourinho was available, of course, and has remained a favourite of club president Florentino Perez, who would not have hesitated in making this the first season since 2004/05 that Madrid had three permanent managers during the same campaign – incidentally, that was Solari’s last season as a player at the club.
The loss to Sociedad had left them 10 points behind La Liga leaders Barcelona, and no-one could have said with complete confidence that they’d get past Leganes in the Copa del Rey Round of 16, let alone Ajax in the same stage of the Champions League.
But, eight games later, they look a different prospect. They have won seven of those eight games, with the loss coming in the 1-0 second leg result against Leganes, when they already held a 3-0 lead from the first leg.
They’ve won four straight league games, beating Sevilla and Real Betis during that run, and have managed to close the gap to Barca and Atletico Madrid to eight and two points respectively.
Madrid will face both of those sides this week, Barca in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final on Wednesday and Atletico in the league three days later, with a chance to go second. And the first leg against Ajax comes in the immediate aftermath.
It’s a fixture list that will make the next week the most important of Madrid’s season, but what’s come in the month before gives Solari and company hope.
The previous eight games have brought 21 goals, with the loss to Leganes the only time in that run when they’ve failed to score at least twice. Given that earlier this season, with Karim Benzema‘s middling form and Gareth Bale‘s continued injury issues, there was a concern about where the goals would be coming from after Cristiano Ronaldo‘s departure, that is a welcome goal glut.
Benzema’s form is particularly encouraging, with six goals in his last four games, and signs of developing an excellent understanding with Vinicius Junior, the 18-year-old who has easily been the brightest spot of Madrid’s season so far.
With Benzema rediscovering a striker’s selfishness and knack for scoring goals, Bale’s absence – he’s made just one start since going off at half-time in that draw against Villarreal – has not been felt. If anything, Madrid’s form has allowed Solari to ease the Welshman back in, as well as doing the same with Marco Asensio, who is recovering from a thigh injury.
I think Benzema has massively benefitted from the departure of Cristiano; he is now the focal point of the attack and expected to be the main goalscorer rather than a servant. Fascinating to see that even during the pregame warm-up - everything went through him.— Andy West (@andywest01) January 29, 2019
There are still concerns around the squad. That Madrid have faced some of the lowest-scoring sides in the division during this eight-game run and still managed only three clean sheets does not bode well for facing Barcelona, who might be without Lionel Messi on Wednesday but are still Spain’s most potent attack, by far.
More importantly, the form of young players like Vinicius and Sergio Reguilon is encouraging, though there must be some within Madrid’s hierarchy who are still worried about the drop-off from Isco, and his much-scrutinised relationship with Solari. The playmaker was meant to be Madrid’s big star in the post-Ronaldo era, rising to become one of the best players in the world.
Instead, these past eight games have seen just one start, and that was in the formality of the second leg against Leganes.
Ultimately, results are what matter. If Solari is getting the team to win without Isco, and either can’t or doesn’t want to integrate the playmaker into his first XI, then Madrid will have to come to terms with the idea of losing someone who is undoubtedly a talented player, yet whose face doesn’t seem to fit.
Vinicius Jnr is deservedly playing ahead of Isco. Sure Isco himself can't complain.— TemilOluwa (@Temphiz) February 3, 2019
In the meantime, the manager has staved off any talk of the sack or Mourinho, put Madrid in a good position to pounce on any slip-ups from Barca in the league – and though the leaders keep winning, their performances have been patchy, so an eight-point gap is not insurmountable – and has set his team up nicely for the mouthwatering Copa semi-final against their fiercest rivals.
A lot can change in a month. Then again, a lot can change in a week. The next seven days will tell Solari, and Madrid, how useful the last eight games have been.
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