Real Madrid players pose for a team photo before the Club World Cup football final match between Kashima Antlers of Japan and Real Madrid of Spain at Yokohama International stadium in Yokohama on December 18, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA
From 40 games without defeat to just one win in four, 2017 hasn’t been kind to Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid with the European champions’ Copa del Rey elimination to Celta Vigo sparking doubts for the first time in the Frenchman’s tenure.
Zidane celebrated a near flawless first year in charge at the Santiago Bernabeu in early January having won three trophies in the Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup and suffered just two defeats.
However, back-to-back defeats to Sevilla and then Celta saw Real’s lead at the top of La Liga cut to a solitary point and left them with too much of a mountain to climb to reach the Cup semi-finals as a 2-2 draw away to Celta on Wednesday allowed the Galicians to progress 4-3 on aggregate.
In isolation all three results are understandable.
Sevilla scored twice in the last five minutes to inflict Madrid’s first defeat since April on January 15. Moreover, losing at the Sanchez Pizjuan is no disgrace with Sevilla sitting second, ahead of Barcelona, in La Liga.
Celta are also enjoying a fine season and Real were severely hampered by injuries with Zidane missing seven first-team regulars in total for Wednesday’s second leg.
However, the cumulative effect of three negative results and a shaky 2-1 win over Malaga in which Cristiano Ronaldo was jeered by some sections of the Real support, means Zidane is now faced with the first stiff test of his senior managerial career to get Real back on track.
“We will turn it around. If we keep believing then we can achieve good things,” said Zidane as he tried to emphasise the positives.
Belief is certainly something that his side have not lacked.
Time and again Real dug themselves out of trouble on their 40-game unbeaten run with late goals.
Even on Wednesday, they twice came from behind to level on the night to give themselves hope of a fightback.
However, fears among Madrid fans and media is growing that Real could be falling into a spiral that has affected both Madrid and Barcelona after winning the Club World Cup in the past two seasons.
– Fateful January –
Carlo Ancelotti’s Real side posted a club record 22-game winning streak before Christmas in the 2014/15 season as they lifted the Club World Cup.
However, a similarly poor January followed as they lost 2-1 at Valencia in their first game of the new year before being dumped out of the Copa del Rey by Atletico Madrid.
“The dream of the treble is left for another season, whilst the nightmare is growing of another fateful January after winning the Club World Cup (as in 2015) that had tragic consequences for the rest of the reason,” Madrid sports daily Marca said on Thursday.
Barca’s mini-collapse came later in the season last year, but, after a 39-game unbeaten run, they lost three La Liga games in a row for the first time in 13 years and were also sent packing from the Champions League by Atletico in April as fatigue took its toll.
Worryingly for Zidane’s men, they still have over half their league season to go, including four away games in February.
Meanwhile, their quest to become the first side to retain the Champions League since 1990 will face a stern test from the on-form Napoli with the first leg just three weeks away.
With that tie in mind, avoiding a two-legged Cup semi-final over the next two weeks may prove to be a blessing in disguise and allow Zidane to get some vital members of his squad back fit.
“I prefer it to happen now than in a month’s time with La Liga or the Champions League on the line,” said Madrid captain Sergio Ramos.