The somewhat pointed decline of Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid in the 10 months or so since they carried off a 10th European Cup in Lisbon will not be measured by a 4-3 defeat to FC Schalke in the Bernabeu in the last-16 of the Champions League, harrowing though it all was, but by how much Barcelona gorge on the carcass of a season that is rapidly becoming a death rattle.
A 5-4 aggregate win felt like the beginning of the end for Los Blancos. Madrid are in real danger of losing the plot and the lot to Barca. The Spanish economy looks to be in a healthier state than the triumvirate of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, who on his own remains a delectable comfort blanket at times of crisis.
Almost as cringeworthy as the term ‘BBC’ is the trio’s hobbling form together. There were strangers sinking sangria in bars around Madrid last night with more convincing chemistry.
Quite startlingly, the BBC could yet be taken over by M&S. Lionel Messi and Luis Saurez are shredding defences at an alarming rate. There is a very serious prospect that the Copa del Rey, La Liga and the Champions League could all wind up on the Camp Nou sideboard with Madrid’s haggard Galacticos looking as shiny as a lump of coal. There is not enough white hankies in the Spanish capital to disapprove of such a gory thought.
Yet this is what is on the roulette table for Messi, Gerard Pique and the rest of the Barca gambling fraternity with the amiable Ancelotti standing accused by his critics of having a “mano floja”. Or a weak hand. Jeremy Clarkson is probably enjoying a more palatable week than poor Carlo.
Barcelona have momentum, and sleight of hand. Anybody who has watched Messi and Suarez flourish in recent weeks see a side that has everything going for it that Madrid do not: flair, technique, direction and the joys of ball retention are all coming to the fore in Catalonia.
Their fierce foes resemble what they are: an array of disjointed luxury signings who are failing to click against sides with greater willpower and resistance. Without the injured Sergio Ramos, James Rodriguez and Luka Modric to support Ronaldo, Madrid’s underbelly has been laid bare.
They traipsed off the pitch at the Bernabeu having reached the Champions League quarter-finals for a fifth successive season with their faces a ghostlier white than those famous shirts. They only made it through with the help of a Ronaldo goal in a 2-0 win in Germany three weeks ago and because of two Ronaldo goals in the second leg which saw them eke out a one-goal success. Never has progression felt so mournful.
If Lisbon seemed a long time ago, so does Madrid’s most recent 2-0 Liga win over Elche on February 22. Three matches, no wins now. For Ancelotti, time suddenly appears to be moving slower than Pepe and Alvaro Arbeloa. 4-4-2 and that 22-game winning run is from a distant land.
Even the majestic Ronaldo looked a bit peaky in his mahogany tan as he shook his head while the traditional ceremony of the mass hankie waves from the home fans began after Madrid caught a self-induced cold. If it was not for the immaculate finishing and movement of Ronaldo, the holders would have been tossed out the tournament in quite grotesque circumstances.
Another week, another record. Ronaldo is up to 78 goals as he goes beyond Raul as the leading scorer in European football history, but this was not a moment for rejoicing as the Portuguese player embarked upon a public vow of silence until the end of the season. And to think they called Bayern Munich FC Hollywood.
Now you can understand why the Real Madrid president Florentino Perez was apparently inquiring about Jose Mourinho's state of mind in London. Madrid don't seem to have the personnel or the ideology to defend properly. But all the strapping centre-halves in the world surely couldn’t tempt Jose to give up the King’s Road for the King’s team.
Madrid's attempt to park the bus last night was utterly chaotic. Ancelotti nearly drove the bloody Vengabus over the edge of a cliff by continuing to leave the team imbalanced in a match that was never under lock and key until the three minutes of added time had been played out.
Boyo, oh boyo, Bale suddenly looks Welsh. He managed a shot at goal, but has not scored in nine matches. Manchester United apparently want to offer him refuge this summer, but he will need to think about that one carefully. Old Trafford and all the fun of the fair at Louis’s lavish red top circus does not seem a soothing alternative from struggling to satisfy the demand of Madrid’s disgruntled audience.
If Ancelotti was in any doubt that his position as coach is on life support, his plight was exemplified by the poor form of Iker Casillas in goal. Does Casillas know where the bodies are buried? Why is such a figure still continuing his career at such a level? Casillas should have saved at least two of the German team’s goals, but his uncertainty spread through the side with as much devastation as forest fire.
Continuing to place your trust in Casillas is the kind of calamitous call that will maim a coach. There is no honour in continuing to fraternise with the glories of yesteryear. His day has come and gone. Casillas can have few grumbles if United’s David De Gea is recruited this summer. What Ancelotti must be focused on is ensuring he does not go the same way as his goalkeeper.
Schalke were worthy of the win, but Robert Di Matteo’s men in blue are hardly blue-chip rivals. They are fifth in the Bundesliga, a full 23 points behind Bayern Munich.
Modric was thrown on as a late substitute. It was his first appearance since damaging a thigh in mid-November. He later said that "sometimes Madrid has to suffer". But surely not like this?
Ancelotti will hope Modric finds full throttle ahead of the Clasico at the Camp Nou on March 22. With Barcelona one point clear at the summit, Madrid are in danger of unravelling under the heat. Yet Ancelotti does not seem keen on alchemy. And all the money in the world can't buy team spirit.
The haunted look on the face of Madrid’s twitchy fans said more than the grand hankie gestures. A sense of entitlement has been replaced by one of foreboding.