On the plane back from defeat in Girona on Sunday evening Zinedine Zidane went over the game again while in the rows behind him his players quietly watched films or TV series, keen to clear their minds of what had just happened. “It wasn’t a nice feeling,” Sergio Ramos admitted, and it didn’t make for good viewing either. “I’m not worried,” the Real Madrid manager had said as he sat in front of the media after the match; now, as he sat in front of his captain flying west, and with no need to transmit a public message of tranquillity, he might have felt differently.
Madrid’s 2-1 defeat by Girona leaves them trailing La Liga’s leaders Barcelona by eight points as they head to Wembley to face Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League. “The league’s long,” Zidane said and on Monday night Ramos insisted he had overcome eight points before. Actually, he hasn’t: Madrid have never won the title from so far behind and it was not just that they had been defeated; it was that, as the Girona coach, Pablo Machín, insisted, it had been “fully deserved”.
(August 27, 2017) Drew 2-2 v Valencia (La Liga)
Two goals from Marco Asensio rescued a point in the first league game of the season at Bernabéu
(September 9, 2017) Drew 1-1 v Levante (La Liga)
Another disappointing home result as it needed an equaliser from Lucas Vázquez to salvage a draw for Zinedine Zidane's side
(September 20, 2017) Lost 1-0 v Real Betis (La Liga)
A third straight league game at the Bernabéu without victory left Madrid seven points behind the early leaders
(October 17, 2017) Drew 1-1 v Tottenham (Champions League)
The reigning European champions were grateful for Cristiano Ronaldo's penalty following Raphaël Varane's own goal
(October 29, 2017) Lost 2-1 v Girona (La Liga)
Having previously boasted a 100% away record in all competitions, defeat to the newly-promoted side made this the worst start to a domestic campaign since 2012 under José Mourinho
At half-time, Madrid led 1-0, but the home side had already hit the post twice and in the dressing room Machín told his players they could win; all they had to do was carry on. Girona scored twice in the second half and might have scored more; Madrid sought a way back into the game but never truly looked like finding it. At one point, the olés rang round as Girona kept the ball from their opponents, moving it from man to man as those in white shirts repeatedly arrived a little too late.
Before that cameras had caught Marcelo, who lost the ball 16 times during the game, responding to Luka Modric: “I made a mistake? What, and you don’t?” With the exception of Isco, seemingly on a one-man mission to get Madrid going, they all had. “We have to play better and work harder,” the midfielder Casemiro said at the end. Zidane disagreed. “We didn’t play badly,” he insisted. Yet nor had they, he admitted, played well.
Actually, badly was a pretty accurate description of a team lacking inspiration or intensity, suffering a striking disconnect between their players, disorganised and so overrun all across the pitch that Zidane ended up replicating Girona’s formation in an ultimately futile attempt to plug the leaks. In the press conference afterwards, the coach went in circles, not convincing in his analysis – which is unusual for him. “When we lose, it’s for a reason,” he eventually conceded. He denied that there had been a lack of work, intensity or attitude. There had certainly been a lack of football.
The consequence was a gap at the top of the table that Casemiro called “concerning”. Ten games into the league season, Madrid have already been beaten twice – last season it took 26 matches – and they have dropped 10 points, a third of those on offer, making this the worst start to a campaign since José Mourinho’s long, bitter goodbye campaign. They have done so against unexpected opponents, as Isco admitted. Real Betis and Girona beat them, while Levante drew at the Bernabéu. They also dropped two points against Valencia – the only side they have faced who are currently in the top seven – and did not convince in narrow 2-1 victories over Getafe or Alavés.
“Maybe we lacked a bit of attitude,” Isco said in Girona. “It’s easy to talk about how united we are and this and that when we win; now is the time to prove that to turn this around.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, but perhaps success debilitates. Madrid began the season winning the Spanish and European Super Cups to go with that league and Champions League double – the first time they had achieved that in 59 years. The sense that this was the start of their era was reinforced by Barcelona’s Gerard Piqué saying that for the first time he felt “inferior” to Madrid. Yet here they are, eight points apart and turning that gap around will not be easy, although it is legitimate to believe that Barcelona’s points haul does not reflect their performances and that there will be opportunities to overhaul them.
The Girona game changed things, building the sensation that Madrid’s league position was not just chance as some had thought, but something more profound. They’d had more than sufficient opportunities to defeat Betis, Levante and Valencia, racking up almost 70 shots across the three games. All they had lacked, Zidane insisted, was “the ball going in.” Ten games in, Cristiano Ronaldo, like Karim Benzema, has scored only once. It is true that Ronaldo missed four games through suspension, having pushed the referee in the Super Cup, while experience suggests the shots will surely start going in eventually, but he has never reached this stage with fewer than five goals.
His are the headline figures, but Ronaldo is certainly not alone. Yet, curiously, he has five goals in the Champions League. Isco apart, all across the team players have suffered a drop in form. Injuries, of which there have been 10 so far, have played their part too: Dani Carvajal had an infection that affected his heart, Marcelo is not fully fit, Benzema has started only half the league games and they travel to Wembley without Dani Carvajal, Raphaël Varane, Mateo Kovacic and Gareth Bale. Zidane’s response when asked for an update on the Welshman’s return was short and a little resigned: “I don’t know.”
But last season they had injuries too, and it did them strikingly little damage. At times, daft though it may sound, it even seemed to do them some good. Replacements performed and rotations became non-negotiable. The conditions were perfect but unsustainable and one question is whether they are a little less equipped to do so this season: Álvaro Morata (20 goals) and James Rodríguez (11 goals, 13 assists), their second top scorer and their top creator, both departed. Zidane had hoped to sign Kylian Mbappé but Paris Saint-Germain beat Madrid to him.
“Too much has been made of this,” Ramos insists. The squad remains extraordinarily strong, a talented young generation challenging the old guard, and there is time still. One thing is for sure: for all the pressure, Zidane will not make it worse, turning a drama into a crisis. And while the home draw against Spurs disappointed and Madrid head to London in need of a decent result and a good performance, there is something different about the European Cup. This is the competition where they forged their identity, that they have won 12 times, including the last two, and in which Ronaldo is again the top scorer. It is often their escape.
Qualification is virtually guaranteed, even if first place is not, and it can sometimes feel like the bigger the game, the better the performance. The win at Borussia Dortmund, where Madrid impressed, was a case in point and the plane to London was not like the one from Girona. “Wembley, here we go,” Ramos tweeted, smiling alongside Marcelo in the front row. Madrid have never overcome an eight-point lead before; they have never been to Wembley before either.