It doesn’t take much for the home crowd at the Santiago Bernabeu to turn on their own team. Indeed, Real Madrid fans turn up at games with a white handkerchief at the ready. The waving of this is the accepted symbol of protest in Spanish football and even in times of great success the Madridistas find a white handkerchief to take along.
But in recent weeks, they have had more reason to be somewhat disgruntled. Real Madrid and the reigning Spanish and European champions and were widely expected to tighten their grip on the continental game once more this season. And yet, a strange atmosphere has set in at the Bernabeu over the early stages of the season.
Real Madrid have claimed just one win from four home league games, drawing at home to Valencia and Levante and losing to Real Betis. Zinedine Zidane’s side currently trail Barcelona at the top of La Liga by five points, with the capital club only beating Getafe on Saturday by virtue of a late Cristiano Ronaldo winner. For all their recent success, this is a team struggling to find their groove.
That’s why Tuesday’s Champions League is so significant for Spurs. Mauricio Pochettino’s side have set themselves up nicely in Group H with back-to-back wins, but what happens at the Bernabeu will go a long way to defining their Champions League group stage campaign. It might decide whether they finish top or whether they make the competition’s last 16 at all.
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Ordinarily, Pochettino would be best-served adapting his usual dynamic, free-flowing style ahead of such a daunting challenge. Real Madrid have won successive Champions League titles and not by accident. Zidane’s side don’t have a distinct identity like Pep Guardiola’s legendary Barcelona side did, but their identity is winning.
Yet this is a side still feeling their way into the season. Ronaldo only just scored his first league goal of the campaign against Getafe at the weekend, with Gareth Bale sidelined through injury and Karim Benzema still finding match fitness. Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Raphael Varane have also all struggled for fitness over the past few weeks.
Zidane’s policy of squad rotation hasn’t helped things, though, with Real Madrid toiling to find consistency not just in their results, but their performances too. There is currently little rhythm to their play, only getting by on the individual brilliance of their players. At Champions League level, that can be exposed.
And so Spurs should take on the role of being the ones to expose them. They have the quality to make an impact at the Bernabeu, with Harry Kane in particular capable of causing damage, scoring 15 goals in 14 appearances for club and country this season. If Real Betis can claim victory at the home of the European champions, Spurs can too.
Pochettino should impose a high press on Real Madrid, forcing them into mistakes high up the pitch, simultaneously providing Kane with the support he needs to thrive. Spurs have the quality to hold their own, technically, at the Bernabeu. They should trust in their ability because if they do the reward could be tremendous.
Of course, Pochettino must find a way to stop Ronaldo, who slowly appears to be finding form again. But Spurs as a defensive unit are among the very best in Europe. “[Ronaldo] is a very important player, but they have lots of very good players,” explained Pochettino ahead of the trip to the Spanish capital. “The squad they have is amazing and they have a very good manager.
“They’re a fantastic club, but you need contributions from the whole squad to win titles. Cristiano is like [Barcelona’s Lionel] Messi, they have a huge impact on their team. He’s one of the best players in the world, it’s clear.”
On the flip side, Real Madrid will view this as an opportunity to put down a marker. To show that their slow start is not reflective of their quality. Spurs could deny them that chance, though. If they play things right, they might just see a demonstration of those white handkerchiefs.