The defending European champions cannot count on their all-time top goalscorer to get them out of trouble and consequently are in a downward spiral
Real Madrid are scarcely worse off this season than they were at this stage last year. But why does it feel so different? Why does it feel terminal for coach Julen Lopetegui? Why does it feel hopeless for Madrid’s season even at this early stage?
Well, for one thing Zinedine Zidane had sufficient credit with the supporters and with the Real Madrid president Florentino Perez thanks to his two Champions Leagues and one La Liga in what amounted at that stage to one and a half seasons.
However bad Real Madrid were down the autumn stretch last year, there was a belief that things would come together in spring and they would again be in with a shout of another European title.
So it proved. What was initially seen as a terrible start to the season was considered in hindsight to be a wobble. Thanks to some awful Loris Karius goalkeeping and a moment of genius from Gareth Bale in Kyiv, what could well have been a monumental disaster of a season ended with a 13th European Cup.
Madrid defied logic last term and were kept afloat – often – on the strength of some fine individual performances.
But let’s not forget how inept they were in the early exchanges – against Valencia, Levante, Real Betis, Girona and Tottenham in that period around one year ago. There was talk of Zidane being fired and of Madrid being woefully equipped for either a La Liga title defence or fresh run at the Champions League.
But trophies have the same kind of effect that the Neuralyzer had in Men In Black. Everything preceding the cup being lifted into the air is soon forgotten.
Right now, Lopetegui has no credit with the fans, no credit with Perez. He cannot point to his recent achievements and warm rapport with the players and insist that with calm all will be OK in the long run.
Neither does he have Cristiano Ronaldo.
It must be borne in mind that during Madrid’s fruitless spell at the start of last season, they had no Ronaldo in the ranks either. He behaved disgracefully in the Spanish Supercopa against Barcelona and earned himself a four-match ban for pushing the referee.
Without him Madrid dropped points and found out what life without their all-time leading goalscorer would be like. Fortunately for Zidane and for Madrid, Ronaldo was available in the Champions League, where he scored heavily all season long.
Aside from the game against Spurs at Wembley, Real Madrid did not have a problem in Europe that Ronaldo couldn’t fix.
He popped up time and again with key goals against the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Paris Saint-Germain and memorably against Juventus. Real Madrid’s strategy in the big games at times last season appeared to be for Sergio Ramos to block shots at one end and Ronaldo to score at the other.
Lopetegui has attempted to move away from that suffer and survive model promulgated by Zidane and is paying the price. Madrid may well be exerting more control in contests this season, but they are a blunt weapon in attack.
It started promisingly with Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio shaping up to share the goalscoring burden. But that has fallen through. Too often Madrid are passing the ball around in front of opposition defences and unable to convert the genuine opportunities that come their way.
Ronaldo has been accused throughout his career of being a flat-track bully or scoring the easy goals. Indeed he was without a goal from the semi-finals onwards in the Champions League last term. When it came to the crunch, it was others who got Madrid over the line.
But those simple goals he got in the league and in Europe can now be seen for what they were. They were extremely valuable contributions from an utterly unique player. If it was so easy to score tap-ins, then why are Madrid’s forwards struggling so badly to do it this time around?
Ronaldo’s movement around the box is unmatched and his propensity to strike ruthlessly – at crucial times – has been a key feature throughout his career. You never expect him to miss.
And while Zidane lived by his wits at times last season he had the comfort of knowing that Ronaldo would get him out of trouble.
Madrid opted to sell that guarantee in the summer. While the transfer fee they banked for a 33-year-old is a welcome and indeed unexpected boost, a pile of money has never scored a goal.
They may be putting a brave face on over his departure, with both Isco and Toni Kroos coming out in recent days to claim the club have moved on from the Portuguese’s departure, but there is no doubt his absence is hurting them more than they are willing to admit.
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“We can’t be crying for someone who didn’t want to be here,” Isco said on Monday when asked whether the disappearance of Ronaldo from the team has weakened them . A stoic response which aims to switch the rhetoric and portray Ronaldo as troublesome and disruptive. Even if proven true, surely that can be forgiven given how often he was able to put the ball in the net?
Now the Clasico is rolling around again with Lopetegui very much in the firing line . Madrid won neither derby last season and are quite rightly fearful of going to Camp Nou this weekend. Their confidence is in ruins and the departures of both Zidane and Ronaldo took away their cloak of invincibility.
They used to be a group of excellent players headed by a talismanic coach and a star striker with a knack of impeccable timing. Now they have a willing and intelligent coach attempting to instil a collective identity on a damaged squad without that same star quality.