As it turns out, 101 days is a long time.
It was 101 days ago that Real Madrid lost 5-1 to arch rivals FC Barcelona in Catalonia, deepening a crisis that brought an end to Julen Lopetegui’s catastrophic spell as Real manager. It was the club’s third league loss in a row, and a fifth straight match without a win. The royals from the capital were sinking without trace.
It was suddenly evident why Zinedine Zidane had walked out on the job over the summer, in spite of winning an unprecedented three straight Champions League titles. It was also clear that Cristiano Ronaldo’s surprising sale to Juventus had been planned poorly. And that none of his assumed successors as Real’s central cog turned out to be capable of putting the team on his back, the way the Portuguese had so reliably and so often, papering over the problems of an aging team.
Tellingly, Real couldn’t find any reputable manager to take Lopetegui’s place, fearful as they were of boarding a sinking ship. The club had to settle for the unproven Santiago Solari, its reserve team manager.
It turned out to be the nadir of Real’s season.
Since then, Solari has slowly rebuilt the team’s confidence and competence and turned its campaign around. Real has climbed from ninth place in La Liga to third. And if it wins a huge cross-town bout with Atletico on Saturday, which would be a fifth straight league victory, Real will take over second place. It won’t be back in the title race exactly – Barca has an eight-point lead – but at least the club would be more or less where it ought to be.
Wednesday, Real underscored its resurgence with a credible 1-1 draw away at Barca in the first leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal tie, a result that will have felt cathartic as well as symbolic.
Six minutes in, Barca boldly took the lead. Lucas Vazquez applied a tidy, short-range finish on the doorstep from Karim Benzema’s cutback (via BeIN Sport).
Real Madrid are in front at camp nou,wonderful goal by Lucas Vazquez. pic.twitter.com/tFfOzeulSk
— Na_Candy (@nacandy17) February 6, 2019
Real’s backup goalkeeper Keylor Navas got the start. He was inexplicably replaced by Thibaut Courtois over the summer, said to be the final straw before Zidane resigned. And the Costa Rican denied Barca’s Malcom and Luis Surez magnificently to preserve the lead before halftime. It helped that Gerard Pique’s header zoomed just high and that Ivan Rakitic nodded Malcom’s free kick off the crossbar.
So Real had been a tad fortunate, but its lead was not undeserved.
Before the hour, Barca snagged the equalizer its second-half performance would come to justify. Clement Lenglet dropped a ball into the space between Jordi Alba and Navas. In the fallout from their collision, the ball fell for Suarez, who pinged it off the near post from a tough angle outside the box. But the rebound set up well for Malcom, who placed his shot well and fooled Sergio Ramos, who let it zip right by his chest and into the net.
It was a redemptive moment for Malcom, starting for Lionel Messi, who isn’t entirely fit yet and came on as a substitute in the second half. Malcom was an expensive summer signing, but he’s lived through a fairly disastrous first season in Barcelona so far, making just a single start between La Liga and the Champions League. The equalizer plainly brought him enormous relief.
Certainly, Real had more cracks at the winner. Vinicius Junior, the 18-year-old Brazilian who has already come good on his enormous transfer fee, had a few promising looks, same as when Benzema teed up Gareth Bale after Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen was caught in no man’s land on a clearance. But the Welshman managed to fluff the sumptuous opportunity.
All the same, Real takes the away goal advantage into the return leg on Wednesday, Feb. 27. Its chances of ending Barca’s run of four straight Copa del Rey titles are good.
So, for that matter, are its prospects in continental play. While Ajax was perhaps the sensation of the group stage, Real will be pleased with its draw for the round of 16, which kicks off next week. Ajax is certainly beatable, potentially putting Real within just a handful of games of yet another final. Real isn’t a favorite for a fourth straight European crown by any means. But another deep run is in the cards.
Plenty of issues remain in the makeup of Real’s squad. And there is still lots of time for its lack of depth, or the shortage of transcendent players who can make the difference on the difficult days, to derail the club again. A busy summer has been predicted as Real will require wholesale changes to its veteran team in order to keep competing with Barca and Europe’s other juggernauts.
But for now, Real Madrid is back on track. It took 101 days.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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