Without Ronaldo, and with Bale and Benzema’s recent performances, will Real Madrid lose the La Liga title?

Published: September 28, 2017
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Real Madrid stretch La Liga lead with win over Athletic Bilbao. PHOTO: REUTERS

Heading into a fresh season, football fans had little doubt about the impervious Real Madrid side. Such was their dominance last season which was carried into the pre-season matches as well, including their thumping win over FC Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup.

Real Madrid won the Spanish Super Cup on Wednesday after a 5-1 aggregate win over bitter rivals FC Barcelona over two legs. Photo: AFP

But things have not gone according to plan for the Spanish powerhouse since then. Their performance at the beginning of the season has raised questions over whether the team can sustain its commanding run of form, evident from last season, in the long run or not.

Uncharacteristic beginning in a new season

One would not have expected that Real Madrid would be off to such a lacklustre start in the new season, especially after the amount of success they tasted last season and with an incredible squad at their disposal. The reigning Spanish champions are already seven points behind arch rivals FC Barcelona.

Benzema and Ronaldo celebrate. Photo: Getty

Criticism towards Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema

Surprisingly, a team which is never short of scoring goals has been guilty of missing quite a few chances and has also displayed a lack of a clinical finishing in the final third half of the pitch. This was partly due to the Cristiano Ronaldo’s absence due to a five-match ban and the below par performance in front of the goalpost from Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema.

Benzema and Bale celebrate against Las Palmas, but prematurely. Photo: AFP

Before moving on, it is important to point out the fact that although Bale and Benzema have not been able to convert the chances they have been presented with, it does not negate the fact that they have been instrumental in creating those chances.

Benzema’s link-up play and Bale’s off-the-ball runs and positioning go unnoticed at times. A team which has so much quality going forward, needs players in a facilitating role and both these players have done pretty well in that department.

With so many attacking options, Benzema’s role in the side is not just of a traditional striker and his output should not just be measured in terms of goals scored. Judging by the surge in his performance against Real Sociedad and Real Betis, Bale is quickly getting back to his original form after a long injury layoff last season.

It is also interesting to mention here that many players can’t get as close to the headers as Bale, due to his great aerial ability in the box.

I don’t have a problem with fans criticising them for not finishing off those chances, but booing them, especially Bale, and repeated arguments about selling the duo are a tad bit premature as these players are still a formidable part of Real Madrid’s plans.

Zinedine Zidane’s managerial aptitude put to test

Although there were a variety of reasons which contributed to Real Madrid’s defeat against Real Betis, one of them was Zidane’s panicking substitutions. Already a left-back short, Zidane brought in Borja Mayoral in place of Luka Modric to go on the offensive. That tactic backfired since Toni Kroos was the only player left to link up a fragile defence and there were too many attacking players.

Real Madrid’s French coach Zinedine Zidane. Photo: AFP

This eventually led to Real Madrid conceding a goal during the dying stages of the match. Although Zidane has done quite well tactically, but with just two years at the helm of Spanish football, he still has to make some progress in learning the tricks of the trade.

It goes without saying that one of the major reasons behind Real Madrid’s success in both Spain and Europe was Zidane’s rotation policy and man management. This kept the side fresh and firing towards the crucial backend of the season. But this season, his job is slightly tougher.

Zidane no longer has the services of Alvaro Morata, who scored 20 goals in the last season, and Columbian James Rodriguez, who had the most assists in the entire squad in the previous season. They were a regular part of Real Madrid’s so called ‘B’ team, hence ensuring that Real Madrid were not dropping points, even without their main guns sitting out the matches.

Having said that, Mayoral and Dani Ceballos’s performances against Real Sociedad and Alaves should be a breath of fresh air for Zidane.

With many players sitting out due to injuries, including Marcelo Vieira, Theo Hernández, Mateo Kovacic and Benzema, Zidane has got his work cut out as Real Madrid look to retain their Spanish title.

Cristiano Ronaldo

If there is one thing the first few matches have highlighted, it is that Ronaldo is still Real Madrid’s decisive man in the box. His positioning in front of the goal and getting at the end of chances is second to none and Real Madrid has missed him dearly.

Cristiano Ronaldo controls a ball during the Spanish League football match at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid. Photo: AFP

Although he has not been able to get on the score sheet against Real Betis and Alaves, it is certain that the Los Blancos will need their talisman back and firing if they are to remain in contention for La Liga.

He has shown signs of rustiness since his return, but his performance against Alaves showed signs that he is quickly getting back into the thick of things. Real Madrid cannot afford more slip-ups in La Liga, especially at such an early stage of the season, and Ronaldo will be critical to Real Madrid for ending the game on a victorious note.

With his fierce rival Lionel Messi going all out, you can be rest assured that Ronaldo won’t be short of motivation to perform well.

Although this has been a turbulent start to the season for the Los Blancos, but if there is one team that turn things around quickly, it is Real Madrid itself. The Whites have fallen short in few key areas at the start of the season, but once they find their groove, they will be a tough side to beat.

Muneeb Farrukh

Muneeb Farrukh

The author is a freelance sportswriter based in Karachi. He tweets as @Muneeb313_ (twitter.com/Muneeb313_)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.