After winning the Champions League in back-to-back seasons, and three times in four years, it feels somewhat silly to cast aspersions on Real Madrid’s domestic form, especially when the club won La Liga a mere eight months ago.
But goodness gracious, Real Madrid’s domestic form has been bad.
The latest example to that effect is Saturday’s 1-0 home loss against Villarreal, on a lazily defended counter-attack goal in the 87th minute. To be fair, Villarreal is sixth in the table and only four points back of the capital titans.
To be unfair … what the heck, Real Madrid?
The goal itself was a gorgeously perfect touch from Villarreal attacking midfielder Pablo Fornals, who followed up a shot by teammate Enes Unal that was saved by Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas:
— beIN SPORTS USA (@beINSPORTSUSA) January 13, 2018
The reality is a bit more complicated. Real Madrid left itself irresponsibly exposed while attacking at the other end, and only Dani Carvajal even feigned interest in defending the counter. Raphael Varane, who disgustedly remonstrated after failing to check back and cover Fornals in time, provided a fairly fantastic summation of Real Madrid’s season.
The Spanish giants started the season under a flurry of bad results and red cards, and their form hasn’t really recovered. Barcelona is atop the league table by nine points, and 16 ahead of Real Madrid (which does have a game in hand), and while the Catalans taking up such a position isn’t surprising, it is surprising how far Real Madrid has fallen off the pace.
For the first time in nearly two decades, Real Madrid is likely going to have to fight for a top-four finish, and the Champions League spot that comes with it. The club has finished first or second in La Liga every year since 2005 except one, when Atletico Madrid rose up and won the title in 2014.
Real Madrid still won the Champions League that year. That might be Real Madrid’s best path to playing in Europe’s top competition next year, too. Even though it drew arguably the toughest Round of 16 matchup ever, the fixture also provides Real Madrid the opportunity to dispose of one of its biggest competitors right off the bat in the knockout stages.
While Real Madrid’s form in Europe has been solid, and beating Paris Saint-Germain to reach the quarterfinals wouldn’t be stunning, relying on beating the other 15 best clubs in the world to a continental title isn’t the most efficient manner of qualification. The fact Real Madrid is in this mess will be one of the most intriguing storylines in world soccer this spring.
The reason La Liga has had the highest UEFA coefficient for what seems like forever is because not only are Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atleti consistently great, the teams that fight for the remaining spots in Europe — which this year include the perennially good Sevilla and Valencia, not to mention Villarreal — can hammer any of the world’s best clubs on their day, too.
So while it’s not appropriate to start counting Real Madrid out of the Champions League next year, it’s becoming time to at least ask the question.
And that kind of says it all, doesn’t it?