Real Madrid were at a veritable zenith of their powers in 2014. They secured a remarkable tenth Champions League crown, went on a record 22 match winning streak in all competitions and, perhaps most astonishingly, managed to convince the world that Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema are great mates who love playing with each other.
Fast forward a year and Real are third in La Liga, 2 points off arch-rivals Barcelona- who have a game in hand. Being 4 points off the top (possibly 5, if Barca win the game in hand) is pretty much equivalent to relegation at Real Madrid, and Rafa Benitez’s bags were packed for him when he reached the team hotel after the 2-2 weekend draw with Gary Neville’s Valencia.
In some quarters, Rafa has garnered sympathy, but sadly those quarters lie firmly outside Madrid. In truth, it was a harsh dismissal if one considers the fact that Real won their Champions League group and are still in contention for the Copa De- err, La Liga title.
By comparison, Manchester United are out of the Champions League and 3 points off the top 4 and Louis van Gaal is saying it’s been a good year. Sadly, those lamentations deserve their own article, and will get one when the time is right.
So, where did this collapse of (relatively) Herculean proportions come from? Most experts opine that Real Madrid made a mistake by letting go of Carlo Ancelotti and, in hindsight, you’d have to say they’re probably right.
Carlo knew how to manage the enormous egos of the biggest and best players and to get them to at least convincingly pretend that they enjoyed playing together. And one could say that’s been the biggest and most telling difference with Madrid this season. There hasn’t been that zest and enthusiasm to work hard for the team and perform at a high level, like there was with Ancelotti.
Jamie Carragher destroyed the Madrid front four after the El Clasico, rightly pointing the accusatory finger for not showing any desire to assist and Bale (do you see what I’ve done here?) out the hapless two-man midfield behind them. Casemiro, who had arguably been their best midfield player this season, was inexplicably left on the bench as Kroos and Modric were decimated by Iniesta and Co.
But, it’s been more than the odd bad result that’s cast a depressing, gloomy shadow over one of the world’s footballing super-powers. The style of play has been extremely erratic- ranging from a thunderous 10-2 win against Rayo Vallecano, to traditional Rafa Benitez kinds of resolute (I can almost hear Real fans shouting “boring”) displays.
The style of play wasn’t helped by the fact that Rafa isn’t the easiest manager to get along with and tends to impose his more pragmatic style on players who simply do not wish to play that way. It led to tensions with James, Benzema, Isco, Kroos, Ronaldo and (surprise, surprise) Sergio Ramos, who often goes flying into midfield leaving gaping holes in what was supposed to be a “resolute” back-line.
Cristiano Ronaldo is probably the last person you’d expect to track back and defend, but he used to do it regularly (at least on set plays) with Ancelotti at the helm. Now, he just floats around waiting for his team-mates to pick him out or tries to pick up the ball and beat entire opposition defences himself.
Ancelotti certainly had the support of Madrid’s main man, who took to social media to offer public support to Carlo just before he was sacked. Somehow, I don’t think we’ll be seeing a Rafa-Ronnie selfie anytime this week.
What next, for the world’s richest football club? Well, Carlo’s taken by Bavaria. Guardiola will never take that job, given his affiliation to the Blaugrana. Mourinho doesn’t want that job, given his lack of affiliation to Perez. Jurgen Klopp is at Liverpool (still can’t understand that one!) and Louis van Gaal has had a great year and will be spending millions to have another one. Quite simply, Real seem to have run out of managers.
So, they’ve turned in this dark hour to a man who often showed the light as a player. So does “Zizou” have what it takes to accomplish the seemingly impossible and please Florentino Perez and that excessively effervescent dressing-room? Can he show Madrid the path to recapturing former glory? At the very least, can he get them playing some exciting football?
Only time will provide the answers to these questions. But, Zidane needn’t fret. He’s received the full public backing of Perez and the Board which means his job is probably secure for at least another 3 days.
If not, I'll be back on Friday to report that Brendan Rodgers is the new Real Madrid manager.