Real Madrid’s season is on the brink.
Los Blancos were not overwhelmed by their opponent Wednesday. In fact, Real dominated El Clasico. Lionel Messi was quiet, Barcelona rode its luck, but though the Catalans only had four shots during the entire match Real was still humbled 3-0. And against your bitterest rivals that’s tough to take.
Barcelona’s win over Real, thanks to a Luis Suarez brace and a Rafael Varane own goal – in the Copa del Rey semifinal second leg – also increases the prospect of the Madrid club ending the season without a trophy.
Real is nine points behind leaders Barcelona in La Liga and with a league meeting against the Catalans on March 2 that gap could increase further soon.
Santiago Solari, Real’s second manager of the season, put his bravest face on as he analyzed his side’s 4-1 aggregate cup defeat to Barcelona.
“We applied ourselves well, with energy, but we weren’t decisive,” he told reporters.
Real’s Copa del Rey exit leaves the Champions League as Real’s only realistic chance of silverware in this tumultuous campaign.
Admittedly, the 13-time champions have pedigree in Europe’s premier cup competition, but progressing to the quarterfinals at the expense of Ajax on March 5 is not a foregone conclusion.
The Dutch side must overcome a 2-1 first-leg deficit, but will be encouraged by their performance in Amsterdam and by the absence of suspended Real skipper Sergio Ramos for the second leg.
The holders will be favorites against Ajax, but also a boon to Real’s opponents is the team’s lack of ruthlessness in front of goal since Cristiano Ronaldo, the most prolific scorer in the history of the European Cup and Real’s record scorer, departed to Juventus last summer.
Forwards Karim Benzema (15) and Gareth Bale (13) have 28 goals between them this season but neither has particularly impressed or made a strong case that new acquisitions aren’t necessary in the summer to fill the Ronaldo void.
Last season, the Portuguese scored 26 goals in 27 La Liga appearances and 44 goals in all competitions for the Madrid outfit. Over his nine seasons in Madrid, Ronaldo scored 311 La Liga goals – 32% of Real’s total.
Then Real manager, Julen Lopetegui, said in the summer that the team would be able to replace the goals lost through Ronaldo’s sale.
But this season Real has scored 43 league goals – 22 fewer than Barcelona – at an average of 1.72 per game. Ronaldo’s absence is felt.
With 13 league games remaining, Real is unlikely to come close to last season’s tally of 94 league goals, scored at an average of 2.47 per game, though Ronaldo and co only managed a third-place finish last season to suggest that this is a gradual demise of an aging squad.
On the positive for Real, the prospects of suffering the most defeats (13) since 1973/74 now seems unlikely after an upturn in fortunes since Solari’s appointment in October, first as a caretaker boss and now on a permanent basis.
By winning 21 of his 29 matches at the helm, the Argentine has stopped the rot which had seen Real plummet to ninth in La Liga. He has also given promising teenager Vinicius Junior a first-team chance.
The dashing Brazilian, described as “just a kid” by his manager, is being preferred to the more experienced Bale, Marco Asensio and Isco and has amassed 31 appearances for Real so far this campaign, scoring seven times and making 13 assists.
Signed for $52 million, he did not come cheaply but the 18-year-old’s performances suggest that, despite a torrid season, he could be the key to a bright Real future.