At a club like Real Madrid, a run of one defeat in a row is too much. That is why Saturday’s slender success against Sevilla was so crucial for Zinedine Zidane, who knows about the pressure at the Santiago Bernabeu better than anyone. Even for a club icon like him, a loss at the weekend could have been fatal.
Prior to Saturday, Madrid had lost their last two matches. A 2-1 home defeat by Alaves left them trailing Real Sociedad and Atletico Madrid in La Liga. It was also the fifth time in their 10 league games this term that Zidane’s side had failed to emerge victoriously. Then, a few days later, Madrid was beaten by Shakhtar Donetsk for the second time this season. The 13-time European champions slipped to third place in their Champions League group with one match remaining.
Zidane is well accustomed to the scrutiny that comes with the managerial role at the Bernabeu, but he has perhaps never been under more pressure than he was going into this weekend. This, after all, is a coach who has been hugely successful across his two spells in the Madrid hot seat. In the first, he led the club to three Champions Leagues on the bounce – an unprecedented achievement in the modern game. After a few months away from the job, he returned in March 2019 and led the club to the La Liga title last season.
Zidane thus had plenty of credit in the bank before his team’s disappointing start to 2020/21. That may well have earned him a stay of execution had Madrid made it three losses in a row against Sevilla, but the Frenchman did not want to find out. Yet although victory at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan has brought him some breathing space, Zidane will be back under pressure if Madrid loses to Borussia Monchengladbach on Wednesday.
Madrid has always been a club defined by continental competition. They won each of the first five editions of the European Cup, and have won four of the last seven Champions Leagues. AC Milan occupies the second spot in the list of all-time European wins, yet they have still won the tournament six times fewer than Madrid.
That is why Zidane might not survive if Los Blancos crash out before the knockout stage. Finishing third in Group B and dropping into the Europa League would be a disaster; finishing fourth would be unthinkable. Both outcomes are eminently possible. Madrid has won two, drawn one, and lost two of their five games to date. That is not the sort of record that is expected of them, even in a tricky group.
Madrid got their European campaign off to the worst possible start, losing 3-2 at home to a Shakhtar Donetsk side that was without 10 first-team players due to a coronavirus outbreak. On matchday two, they needed two late goals to salvage a draw with Borussia Monchengladbach. Back-to-back triumphs over Inter followed, before that limp loss to Shakhtar last week.
Madrid now heads into Wednesday’s game against Gladbach knowing that defeat would see them fail to reach the knockout phase of the Champions League for the first time since 1996/97, before Zidane had even moved to the Bernabeu as a player. A draw would probably not be enough either. Madrid must beat Gladbach to guarantee their spot in the last 16.
They may well do that, and given their pedigree and reputation, no one would be too surprised to see Madrid rally in the second half of the season and pick up silverware at home or abroad. Right now, though, they look far from the continent-dominating team they aspire to be.
As the manager, Zidane will be the man held responsible if results continue to be poor. He is not the only person to blame for Madrid’s current predicament, though. Key parts of the squad have been allowed to grow old together, with Sergio Ramos, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Marcelo, and Karim Benzema still playing well into their 30s.
All five players still have something to offer. Ramos is indispensable and Benzema was the club’s standout performer last season. But many of the signings brought in to supplement the long-serving core have not worked out. Eden Hazard continues to struggle with injuries. Luka Jovic has been a major disappointment. Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo are talented but blow hot and cold, as is often the case with young players.
Madrid pocketed €100m when they sold Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus, but they have not reinvested that money wisely. There is still no natural back-up for Casemiro. Madrid is over-reliant on Benzema for goals. The likes of Isco and Marco Asensio have not kicked on. Zidane did well to get Madrid over the line in last season’s La Liga title race, but their deficiencies were clear for all to see.
Saturday’s 1-0 win over Sevilla was vital for Zidane. It was far from a vintage performance from Madrid, who needed an own goal from Bono to emerge triumphantly. Yet the result was always going to be all-important at the Sanchez Pizjuan, and Zidane deserves credit for picking up all three points. With Barcelona losing to Cadiz on the same day, Madrid are now second-favorites to win La Liga at +300 with DraftKings Sportsbook.
Madrid will be in a decent position if they collect wins from their next two matches. First up is that crunch clash with Gladbach, in which a win might even see Madrid qualify for the knockout stage as group winners. Then, next weekend, los Blancos take on crosstown rivals Atletico Madrid, the La Liga leaders and +150 favorites to win the title with DraftKings Sportsbook.
Victory over Sevilla eased the pressure on Zidane. But as the Madrid legend knows, respite at the Bernabeu is only ever temporary.
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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