A trophy can mask a lot. Even as Real Madrid secured their first La Liga title in three years, deep-rooted issues were evident, though the sight of Sergio Ramos with silverware in hand at the end of last season said Zinedine Zidane needn’t worry about that too much.
Now, though, he has plenty to worry about. Real Madrid’s problems have come to the fore at the start of the 2020/21 campaign, suffering shock home defeats to Cadiz and Shakhtar Donetsk in back-to-back games. This would constitute a calamity at the best of times, but in the same week of a Clasico it has the makings of a full-blown crisis.
Most concerning for Zidane will surely be that what happened against Shakhtar on Wednesday night wasn’t particularly surprising. Of course, it was jarring to see Real Madrid 3-0 down at half time to a team missing 10 senior squad figures through Covid-19 self-isolation, but this is a team that has now won just one of their last seven home Champions League fixtures - a team for whom lethargy has become entirely typical of late.
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Zinedine Zidane, Real Madrid - Shakhtar
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Missing Sergio Ramos through injury, and Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos through rotation, Real Madrid’s game plan was undetectable. There were signs of a high press early on, but no indication of what Zidane wanted his side to do with the ball when they won it. It was the same in the loss to Cadiz on Saturday.
The pitiful showing against Shakhtar was proof to Zidane that his team is nowhere near as flexible and adaptable as he wants it to be. Real Madrid still have the core of players to win games and silverware, but things quickly fall apart when even one member of that core group is missing.
This doesn’t bode well for Saturday’s first Clasico of the season.
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Much has been said and written of Barcelona’s Messi ‘dependencia,’ but Real Madrid are just as dependent on their ageing core, particularly Ramos.
In his captain’s absence, Zidane selected Eder Militao to start alongside Raphael Varane in central defence and there was no improvement in their understanding as a pair since the defeat to Manchester City in August, when the latter endured his worst ever game in a Real Madrid shirt.
There was an uptick in Real Madrid’s second half performance, pulling 0-3 back to 2-3, but only after Benzema and Vinicius Junior were introduced off the bench. This gave Los Blancos a more familiar look, at least from an attacking sense. With Benzema providing an outlet, Shakhtar Donetsk’s defence was given a lot more to think about.
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That the Frenchman changed the dynamic of this match so drastically only adds to the sense Luka Jovic may have run out of chances. Signed for €70 million after a season which saw the Serbian score 27 times in 48 appearances for Eintracht Frankfurt, he has struggled to find a role for himself in Spain.
Zidane has this season attempted using Jovic as a strike partner alongside Benzema to open up space and pull opposition attention away from the Frenchman, but as a goalscorer in his own right, as he was deployed against Shakhtar Donetsk, the 22-year-old might not be given another opportunity to prove himself. Wednesday night might well have marked the effective end of his Real Madrid career.
Defeat to Barcelona on Saturday would bring criticism of Zidane and his players to a crescendo. The political and financial crisis witnessed at the Camp Nou over the summer has dominated the agenda in Spain for months, but Real Madrid’s troubles are growing more obvious with almost every passing match. Without the shimmer of silverware to blur the vision, everything is clearer.
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