Real Madrid have recemtly surpassed their club record by staying unbeaten for 35 games. Although there are some impressive results displaying their strength and fire-power, a surprising amount of unconvincing results are sprinkled in. There has been much debate about how Real Madrid have navigated past this: some say through luck, whilst others argue it is down to Real Madrid’s characteristic ‘steely resolve’. A simple approach to this would suggest Zinedine Zidane himself has orchestrated this feat, and numbers firmly support his claim with the team losing only 2 of the 53 games in 2016, however, many are tentative to suggest this is only a partial answer. So what is it?
To find an example of an ‘unconvincing’ display we only need to rewind back to their last league game against Deportivo de La Coruña. Heading into the 80’ minute 2-1 down, they were able to turn around the deficit to win with a side missing Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric and Karim Benzema, all on the bench. People will give you the tired old answer of how real Champions are able to ‘win ugly’ and they are perhaps right as no one can question the fact that Real are already 3 points ahead with a game in hand (which is against 17th placed Valencia) over Barcelona. In their Champions League quarter-final tie against Wolfsburg last season, they managed to overturn a 2-0 score line at home to progress 3-2 on aggregate. Further evidence to support this comes when we observe that La Real have won a quarter of their games this year coming from behind, with Sergio Ramos himself saving 4 points this season on his own from losing situations.
Although luck may not be a prominent feature this year Real have certainly benefitted from it: a recollection of the 2-1 win over Sporting Gijon is proof. Sporting were the dominant team in that clash and Abelardo Fernandez’s men even won a late penalty but it wasn’t to be as Duje Cop blasted the spot-kick over.
Zidane’s contribution to the team cannot be overlooked, especially considering the state of affairs Rafael Benitez left the side in. For Real to comeback from that and win the Champions League was special. Zidane isn't a standout tactician but he has shown understanding of tactics, visible from how he set up the team against Atletico Madrid. A rigid 4-4-1-1 allowed Real Madrid to counterattack and eliminate their defensive vulnerabilities by tightening up. But perhaps his key skill is his man-management, which certainly his predecessors lacked. In a dressing room full of bloated egos and prides, Zidane has managed to convince the squad to buy into his ideas, with the exception of James Rodriguez. Zidane has even convinced Ronaldo to rest in certain games and has got the best out of his second string players to keep Real churning out points; Lucas Vazquez and Mariano Diaz Mejia have both stepped up to plug the gaps when key players like Bale have been injured.
This Real side with Zidane at the helm have been terrific this calendar year and their relentless passion and hunger for the win has brought them points, with the aid of some luck, but Zidane deserves as much praise as his valiant team.
Spanish Football Expert
Hundreds of years of El Clásicos have given us a fair amount of heroes. Some won their side the league title; others ended weeks of speculation with their brilliant performances; a few even changed the way we looked at football. Here are a few of the recent examples of players who became club legends after their world class performances.
Leo Messi, 27th April 2011
It was called The Mega Clásico. The spring of 2011 saw four clashes between the two giants within only 18(!) days, two of which were going to be Champions League semi-finals. The Mega Clásico was so incredibly hyped up, but ended up being a quite boring affair for the neutral fans, at least for the first 70 minutes or so, as Barcelona got the game exactly where they wanted it. With their extreme tiki taka football, Blaugrana got a lot of new haters but the Culés couldn’t care less as they watched their heroes execute a perfect game tactically at the Santiago Bernabéu. When everyone thought Barcelona would follow through right to the end with their extremely patient passing, Leo Messi broke the deadlock in the 76th minute. The little Argentinian put the Catalans a goal up with a nice finish in between Iker Casillas’ legs. 10 minutes later he was at it again. With a mind-blowing run, he passed four Blancos defenders and doubled Blaugrana’s lead with a composed, yet clinical finish in the bottom-right corner. Barcelona progressed to the final, and took their second Champions League title in three years. Messi became a true El Clásico hero.
Cristiano Ronaldo, 21st April 2012
In the spring of 2012 the two rivals were, as always, fighting for the La Liga title. Los Blancos were desperate to win it after a 5-year league title drought. As the teams stepped on to the beautiful Camp Nou grass, Real Madrid were four points clear at the top. Barcelona had the momentum coming in to the clash, as they just weeks earlier were trailing by ten points. After a few dropped Madrid points, it looked like Barcelona could be back in it again with a win as 99,000 fans gathered at the biggest stadium in Europe to watch Pep Guardiola once again battle José Mourinho. But they were in for a shock. Los Mergengues took the lead after just 17 minutes, which was followed by an Alexis Sánchez equaliser. But the Blaugrana joy lasted just 5 minutes. Mesut Özil received the ball on the right-hand side, and found a space for Cristiano to run into. The run, the pass, and the finish was all completed with perfection. It was that goal which pretty much sealed the Madrid side their first league title since 2008, and Ronaldo became the hero of the season.
Ronaldinho, 19th of November 2005
In 2005, Ronaldinho was at his absolute best. In my opinion, no player has ever been more superior to the other players than the Brazilian was at that time. And that clash at the Bernabéu just confirmed that. That night in Madrid changed the way I looked at this beautiful game. It was the foundation of my love for Spanish football and everything around it. I’m actually getting quite emotional as I sit here remembering what went down that night. Barcelona smashed Real Madrid 3-0. An 18 year old Leo Messi was behind Samuel Eto’o’s goal which gave Barcelona the lead in the first half. In the second half Ronaldinho completely stole the show. With his two amazing solo runs he scored a brace in the space of 17 minutes.
After his second goal, the crowd at the Bernabéu gave the magician a standing ovation. Watching that made me realize what football is all about. Sure, you follow your team week in and week out, and the goal is to always see the team you support win. But when that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t appreciate great football. The standing ovation didn’t mean all the Madrid fans suddenly became Culés. It didn’t mean they were particularly happy with what they had just seen. It just meant they knew they had seen something extraordinary by an incredible footballer, and respected it.
Admitting your defeat in such a huge clash like that, and doing so by standing up, applauding, and showing your respect for it is something the Madrid fans should get huge credit for. That is something we rarely see in modern football, but it is something we, at times, can see in the Spanish top division. That is why I love it so much.
Prediction for this year’s El Clásico: 2-2
Spanish Football Expert
Tarun takes a look at the impressive start Real Sociedad have made to the La Liga season and ponders on what the future holds.
Real Sociedad have had an outstanding month, securing 7 points out of 9 with only a clinical Lionel Messi finish denying them 3 points against a lethargic and disorganised Barcelona. The team is currently an impressive fifth in the table with 23 points (that’s almost half of the points they achieved the whole of last season already, 48). With only teams in the bottom 5 left to play until January, will we be seeing La Real sitting pretty in a Champions League spot having dethroned a major force come the New Year?
The month of November started with a bang at Anoeta as 2 penalties took them to victory against Atlético Madrid; a cute Carlos Vela finish and a powerful Willian José strike coasted Sociedad to victory. Both teams struggled to play out from the back with the heavy rain holding up the ball but as it dried out some clever counter attacks got the better of the static Atlético defence. A routine win against Sporting Gijon capped by a stunning Inigo Martinez free-kick allowed the team to carry on churning out points as a visit from Barcelona loomed. However, only a disallowed goal and a moment of quality from the pairing of Neymar Jr. and Messi denied Sociedad the win. A fervent La Real displayed a scintillating attacking performance but were desperately unlucky, especially with Carlos Vela even managing to hit the post in the dying minutes as well.
Real Sociedad had a quite transfer window as expected as they have a cap on non-Basque players so they struggle to find a high number of eligible players. They have done the opposite to teams like Sevilla and Valencia, who both saw a mass exodus and influx of players, opting to stick with a stable team. However, one of their international additions over the summer has really brought home the goods in the form of Willian José. He has scored 7 goals and assisted 1 to propel Sociedad this season. He is proving to be a great addition to the squad by the manager, Eusebio Sacristan, for only €5.1 million. The team struggled last season as the ineffective Jonathas was unable to cement his position in the starting line-up. Willian José’s poachers finish against Barcelona indicated what the team had been missing during Imanol Agirretxe’s absence through injury. His fast and direct play allows him to mop up after the wingers, Vela and Mikel Oyarzabal, as well as release them in quick counter attacking build-ups. This new MSN-like role has really suited Sociedad and is a very nice change to have a striker focused on speed as opposed to aerial prowess.
We have always recognised and admired Carlos Vela’s talent. He can be world-class on his day but could not seem to be able to deliver week-in week- out. This season though, with 4 goals and 2 assists, he has built consistency into his game; he has finally come of age! He has been vibrant on the right wing and his relationship with Oyarzabal and Willian José has tormented defences. His spectacular strike against Barcelona cannot go unnoticed even though it wasn’t a goal and if the Spanish FA had implemented goal line technology it might even have been one.
Can La Real go all the way? With a solid backline and leaders like Xabi Prieto and Iñigo Martínez - and let’s not forget their own little MSN - they stand in good stead. With a few giant-killings already under their belt, I’m sure they are brimming with confidence that they will win the upcoming battles against Villareal and fierce neighbours Athletic Bilbao in the war for the Europa League spot, and possibly even vie for Champions League qualification. Being only 1 point behind fourth placed Atletico Madrid, they have every right to.
Spanish Football Writer