Midnight had come by the time Karim Benzema left the Bernabeu and it was still going around his mind, the moments that slipped away from him, the opportunity. One shot? He’d had more than that. The stats said seven and the sensations were worse: As one went past the post near the end, he watched in disbelief, resigned to failure. It was late; it could have been later and still he wouldn’t have found an explanation. He wouldn’t have found a goal, either. The way he saw it, he could have played all night and it just wasn’t going to go in.
Real Madrid had just drawn 2-2 with Valencia. It was only the second week of the season; there will be more surprises to come (and plenty of them). But in a league where few points are dropped and the margins are fine, where the past eight title winners have racked up 93, 91, 94, 90, 100, 100, 96 and 99 points respectively, these two mattered. Worse, two weeks later two more escaped Real.
Another Bernabeu meeting, another Valencia team, another draw. Real Madrid were held 1-1 by Levante and FC Barcelona slipped further away. Three weeks in, four points off.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Real Madrid beat Barcelona 5-1 on aggregate in the Spanish Super Cup. “For the first time,” Gerard Pique admitted, “I feel inferior to them.” No one disagreed. Madrid were preseason favourites to win the league. Some thought they would walk away with it. They had just won the league and European Cup double for the first time in 59 years, a third Champions League in four, and the talk was of this being the start of something.
As for Barcelona, they were in crisis. They still are … off the pitch at least. At every turn, the board seem to make mistakes, the division is open, the communication dreadful and the pressure on the president builds. The list of signatures demanding that Josep Maria Bartomeu face a vote of no confidence grows, although whether it will reach the target is another matter. Neymar is in Paris, Philippe Coutinho still on Merseyside. Yet on the pitch, Barcelona are on top. Since the Super Cup, they’ve won four games out of four, scoring 12 and conceding none.
Only one other team has won all three league games and that’s la Real (as in Sociedad), not el Real. This weekend, Real Madrid go to Real Sociedad, and Anoeta isn’t easy. “It’s four points already; we have to improve to add to that,” said Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane. He also added, “I’m not worried,” and nor should he be. Not overly, at least. It’s only Week 3, and around this time last season — from Sept. 21 to Oct. 2 — they drew four in a row against Villarreal, Las Palmas, Dortmund and Eibar. Look how that turned out.
Against Valencia, the ball just wouldn’t go in. Against Levante, it wouldn’t either, but it was a little different. In three league games, Madrid have taken 55 shots and scored just three times. “We have to be more effective,” said Zidane.
So that’s that? Not exactly. There’s something in that — a lot, in fact. And there is a temptation to say that this isn’t anything to be concerned about. Recent seasons have certainly warned against sweeping early judgments. Barcelona won the treble from a position of “crisis,” taking the title at the end of a season in which Madrid had broken a club record for consecutive wins; Madrid won the European Cup five months after they sacked their manager. “When you lose, it can feel like you’re never going to win again, and when you’re winning it can feel to people like you’re never going to lose … but that’s just not true,” Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde said this week.
Besides, it’s not as 8if Madrid have been awful. Far from it. “Crisis or bad luck?” was one headline, and up to a point, bad luck convinces, certainly more than “crisis” does. “I’m not going to lose my head,” Zidane insisted. Madrid’s expected goals stat, El Pais pointed out, reveal a team that should have won both games and that is “guaranteed” to get better. All the more so when Cristiano Ronaldo has been out with a five-game suspension. His significance was underlined with their 3-0 victory over APOEL — even if it was only APOEL (“aspirin,” as one paper put it) in a game that didn’t truly inspire. He scored twice and had another ruled out. Besides his goals, his ambition changes Madrid.
With Ronaldo back, this will be different. Even with him out, it probably should be too. As Zidane said, three goals in two games is not many for Madrid, yet this is still a team that has scored in 70 consecutive matches. Ronaldo will make a difference. Benzema may not be a pure No.9 (no, he’s better than that) but he does score goals and won’t always have a day like Valencia when, as the Spanish phrase has it, you could put a rainbow in front of him and he’d be unable to put the ball through it. Gareth Bale should grow. And there will always be contributions from elsewhere: Last season, every outfield player except Fabio Coentrao scored.
Yet while Levante goalkeeper Raúl made a number of good saves, including one superb late stop from Marcelo, and while Toni Kroos hit the post late on, this was not the same as it had been against Valencia. Madrid were not as fluid, not as quick; the chances weren’t so clear-cut. Levante prepared themselves for a siege that never really came; there was not that feeling of inevitability or a sense that the goal would come no matter what. The manager — and this is a good thing — was not hiding behind bad luck or missed opportunity. “I can’t be happy with how we played,” he said.
Zidane also defended himself against criticism that he had rotated too much, something he was lauded for last season. He insisted that he believes in what he is doing and so do the players; he will carry on. Yet more significant than the fact that he did rotate was perhaps the fact that he did not. That he could not.
Last season, Zidane was able to keep an extraordinarily talented squad together, bringing them together in a collective, shared ambition and making them all feel like protagonists — albeit some to a greater extent than others. In part, though, that was circumstantial and was always likely to be temporary. The conditions were perfect but they couldn’t stay that way forever. James and Alvaro Morata, in particular, were never going to accept that for long, and this summer they went. “I would have liked Morata to stay, but he wanted to play,” Zidane admitted.
Morata scored 20 goals last year, more than anyone except Ronaldo. James provided as many assists as anyone else. Beyond their direct contribution, it enabled the contribution of others to be greater. Ronaldo’s phenomenal end to the season was built earlier in the campaign, constructed on the games in which he didn’t play well as much as the ones in which he did. In his absence, there was a confidence in the players who were present. The strength in depth was quite astonishing.
Injuries and suspensions barely mattered. The question is whether this season they might; Benzema and Ronaldo, who has one more game of his suspension to serve, will miss Sunday’s trip to the Anoeta. So will Marcelo. Might Madrid miss them?
After all, James and Morata played a big part in that success. James scored the goal that looked like claiming a draw against Barcelona, two against Sevilla and the opener at Espanyol. Morata got the 94th-minute winner against Sporting Portugal, the 83rd-minute winner against Athletic, the 83rd-minute equaliser at Villarreal. He is gone; so too is the backup striker to the backup striker, Mariano, who got the 84th-minute equaliser against Deportivo.
Madrid have not replaced either player. The day Morata left, Zidane said that Madrid needed another No. 9. At that point, he thought it would be Kylian Mbappe, but when that didn’t happen, he said he was happy with his squad.
Madrid strengthened in the summer. Theo Hernandez provides cover for the one player who didn’t have it last season: Marcelo. Marcos Llorente gives backup for Casemiro who, Mateo Kovacic apart, didn’t really have cover either. Jesus Vallejo has arrived as Pepe departed. Dani Ceballos has a huge future before him … and time, too. Then there are the others likely to take a step further this season: Isco is, well, Isco. Casemiro and Kovacic are getting better. And Marco Asensio, left out of the squad on occasions last season, has everyone giddy with excitement. Those players will score goals. But this week Zidane did admit that perhaps Madrid were a No. 9 short.
They won’t need one often, and this is no crisis. In fact, it seems vaguely absurd that it has warranted so much attention, but the margins are fine indeed.
Zidane says he has faith in Borja Mayoral (although he was left out at the weekend) while Bale can play through the middle, Ronaldo is effectively a striker, and Benzema’s injury isn’t a long-term one. It is, though, enough to keep him out this weekend, just as Ronaldo will be absent against Real Sociedad, the team that has yet to drop any points this season. It may also highlight a small weakness in a squad that is absurdly talented. Madrid are four points down. It wasn’t supposed to be this way and it probably won’t be for long, but dropping more points would be genuinely dangerous, even as early in the season as this. Not decisive and not dramatic, but not insignificant either.
The logical thing might be to tell everyone to calm down, but pretty much no one is ever calm around La Liga.
Except Zidane. And Valverde.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.