Real Madrid are throwing away LaLiga all over again… but will the Champions League provide yet another title?

Ben Hayward
Evening Standard

It has been an all-too familiar story for Real Madrid in recent seasons. While Los Blancos have been winning Champions Leagues over the past five years, finding consistency in LaLiga has proven much more difficult.

Thursday’s trip to Villarreal was an opportunity for Santiago Solari’s side to start the New Year with a win in their game in hand and make up ground on Barcelona in the title race. Instead, however, it merely brought more signs that this team is not good enough.

With Villarreal struggling at the wrong end of the table, it was one Madrid should have won.

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But their 2-2 draw only served to highlight the flaws. Having ended 2018 by winning the Club World Cup out in Abu Dhabi, this was a reality check for Real.

“Back to reality,”AS said after Solari’s side failed to hold on to their lead and saw two points dropped at the Estadio de la Ceramica, leaving them seven adrift of Barca after 17 rounds of matches.

And Marca’s reaction was worse. “Determined to throw away LaLiga,” the Madrid-based sports paper said. As so often in the past decade, the consistency for a genuine title tilt looks to be lacking.

While Solari has undoubtedly sparked an upturn in morale and also results since taking over from Julen Lopetegui at the end of October, the performances are as patchy as they were back then and problems remain at both ends of the pitch.

At Villarreal, Marcelo was absent without leave once again. The Brazilian has had an awful season by his standards and was at fault for both goals on Thursday, gifting space for Santi Cazorla to score inside four minutes and leaving the midfielder all alone at the end to head home a late leveller.

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Such defensive indiscipline from the left-back has cost Madrid all season, starting against Atletico in the Uefa Super Cup back in August and continuing in LaLiga. If Real are to aspire to winning the major trophies at the end of the campaign, it cannot continue.

In midfield, meanwhile, the return of Casemiro did little to shore up the defence and the injured Marcos Llorente was missed after his impressive performances in December.

The game probably turned when Gareth Bale picked up another injury, though. Certainly Solari thought so.

“We had it in our hands,” he said. “We should have killed off the game. But then they pressed and they scored the equaliser. They pushed a lot, they need the points. We were conditioned by Bale’s departure.”

The winger appeared to take a heavy knock and was substituted at the interval. In the second half, Real rarely threatened without him, although Lucas Vazquez was guilty of missing a fine chance with only Sergio Asenjo to beat and Benzema all alone alongside him.

“I think the criticism is unfair,” Lucas said afterwards. “There are streaks when we are always criticised a lot and people don’t believe in us, but in the end we turn things around and we have won Champions Leagues, leagues, Club World Cups…”

Photo: EPA/Miguel Angel Polo
Photo: EPA/Miguel Angel Polo

The leagues have been harder to win, however, with just two titles in the past 10 seasons. Even with Cristiano Ronaldo at the club, Real were unable to dominate domestically.

With the Portuguese now at Juventus, this season seems even more difficult. Bale’s fitness continues to be a problem, too, while Marcelo looks lost, other players are off form and a lack of attacking alternatives on the bench means Madrid will have to think about reinforcements in the summer and perhaps in January.

Here are the Uefa Champions League round of 16 ties

Because even with 21 rounds of matches still to play, making up seven points on Barcelona already appears a tall order and as a New Year starts afresh, the Champions League may be Real’s best hope of a major trophy once again.

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