World Soccer Power Rankings: Real Madrid is 'sinking,' but how far?

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Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcelo have both been prominent figures in Real Madrid’s crisis. (Getty)
Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcelo have both been prominent figures in Real Madrid’s crisis. (Getty)

Real Madrid is “sinking.” Or so says one of its own players. “It is one of the worst situations I’ve experienced here,” Marcelo said after Saturday’s 1-0 loss at home to Villarreal.

“We are sad, angry,” he said. So are millions of fans.

But they are also confused. Because Real Madrid is better than this. Fans know it. Players know it. Coaches know it.

“We don’t deserve this,” manager Zinedine Zidane said. “We think we played well but the ball just didn’t want to go in for us. I cannot explain why.”

Nobody can. But Zidane is right. Madrid has been nowhere near as bad as its record suggests. It’s been nowhere near as bad as the 19-point gap between it and Barcelona suggests. It got off an absurd 28 shots on Saturday, with 19 of them taken from inside the box. On many days, that output would be worth three points. On others, it isn’t.

Madrid has had a lot of the “others” this year. It has dropped points nine times. In several of those nine games, it has honestly been fine.

That would seem to contradict the idea that the team is “sinking.” That it is in crisis. But in a way, the panicked meltdowns become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every performance has positive and negative aspects. Losses and disappointing draws shift focus to the negatives, even if they’re outnumbered by positives. Focus on the negatives, in turn, causes them to multiply. That’s just how the human brain works.

“It might be a mental aspect that is stopping us from winning,” Zidane said. “When we are on a bad run, there are always negatives to pick up on.” He’s absolutely spot on.

His Madrid side isn’t significantly worse than it was last year. He isn’t worse as a coach. But last year, things started well and ended well. There was never a deep rut to pull out of. This year, there is, and Madrid hasn’t been able to escape it. “This can wear you down mentally,” Zidane said. And again, he’s spot on.

All of this is to say that, while Barcelona is out of reach, the gulf between the two sides almost certainly isn’t as large as you think it is. Which is why Madrid hasn’t fallen as far in the latest edition of our World Soccer Power Rankings as you were probably expecting it to.


(Number in parentheses represents change since Dec. 21)

1. Manchester City (-) — As many noted after Liverpool dealt City its first Premier League loss, the late fight-back, from 4-1 to 4-3, was a timely reminder of just how good Pep Guardiola’s side is.

2. Barcelona (-) — The timing of the Coutinho deal still doesn’t make sense. But the one thing I love about it is the anti-complacency message it sends. Barcelona is the only unbeaten team in Europe’s Big Five leagues. It would be very easy for a club, internally, to assume that means nothing has to change. But Barca, which struggled with roster foundation building for years, knows that its success doesn’t equate to solved problems. The Coutinho acquisition will go a long way to addressing them.

In the short-term, Barca remains imperfect, but nonetheless great. Coutinho’s introduction will provide a spark. That he can’t play in the Champions League until next season doesn’t matter for the purposes of these power rankings. Ernesto Valverde’s side isn’t quite as dynamic and flexible as Guardiola’s, but the gap is closing. Hopefully we get a dream City-Barca Champions League matchup, either in the quarterfinals or beyond.

3. PSG (-) — “Neymar is a god,” part 1:

Oh, you want to scoff at the competition? Fair enough. PSG did beat Dijon 8-0, after all. But how about we offer you “Neymar is a god,” part 2?

4. Bayern Munich (+2) — Prior to this decade, Bayern had never won more than three consecutive Bundesligas. It is currently well on its way to six in a row.

5. Liverpool (+6) — Absolutely flying right now. Never mind the Coutinho departure. It will cost Liverpool a few points somewhere down the line, but until then, and/or until injuries strike, there’s nothing to do but gush. This is the second-best team in England. As many wrote last weekend, Liverpool didn’t so much make this year’s Premier League title race interesting by bludgeoning Man City; but it certainly made next year’s more intriguing.

6. Juventus (-1) — Still only one goal conceded in all competitions since a Nov. 19 loss to Sampdoria. The Bianconeri are one point off Napoli’s pace, but should still be favored to win their seventh-straight Serie A title.

7. Real Madrid (-3) — We more or less addressed everything in the intro. It’s not as if Los Blancos have deserved to win every single game this year. But the amount of undeserved draws and losses should give them confidence heading into their gargantuan Champions League Round of 16 tie with PSG.

8. Napoli (-) — After letting a small lead slip to just a one-point advantage over Juve, Napoli also won four Serie A games in a row to retain top spot heading into the winter break.

9. Tottenham (+3) — Heung-Min Son’s improvement has made up for Dele Alli’s stagnation, and Spurs are rolling again.

10. Atletico Madrid (-) — The title is all but gone. A top-four finish is all but assured. And the Champions League is a distant memory. Atleti really needs to overcome a 2-1 first-leg deficit to Sevilla in the Copa Del Rey to make the second half of its season interesting. Or perhaps it’ll be content to go all in on the Europa League.

11. Manchester United (-4) — Hidden within a 3-0 walk-in-the-Old-Trafford-park against Stoke were the same old issues. Particularly when Paul Pogba plays deep, there’s an alarming, very un-Mourinho disconnect between midfield and defense. Just watch this embarrassing display from Pogba and Nemanja Matic:

(Original video: NBC Sports Live Extra)
(Original video: NBC Sports Live Extra)

United conceded seven shots from inside the penalty area within the width of the six-yard box. At home. Against one of the worst teams in the Premier League. It very easily could have been down at halftime. There is talent here, and there will soon be more. There are also problems.

Speaking of problems …

12. Chelsea (-3) — Problem: Three-straight games scoreless, and only one goal in your last 396 minutes of football.


13. Inter Milan (+1) — Inter v Roma on Sunday (2:45 p.m. ET).

14. Roma (-1) — It’s been billed as a crisis-averting six-pointer. Winner hangs around the outskirts of the title race; loser is done. And that’s probably fair. But maybe the narrative was wrong all along. Maybe these two teams were never legitimate title contenders in the first place. They don’t have the requisite talent. Sunday’s showdown should probably be viewed through the lens of the top-four race instead.

15. Arsenal (-) — Never has there been a more apt and timely GIF:

(Original video: NBC Sports Live Extra)
(Original video: NBC Sports Live Extra)

We’ll delve into some real Arsenal analysis next time, after the transfer window has slammed shut.

16. Lazio (+7) — Finished the first half of the season very strong, and heads into the second as a true top-four contender in Serie A.

17. Valencia (-1) — Still a heavy favorite for a top-four spot.

18. Borussia Dortmund (+1) — Should Dortmund sell Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang?

On one hand, he oftentimes seems absolutely essential to BVB’s attack. His pace and versatility are near ideal fits for the club’s style and personnel. His goalscoring record is outstanding, and he’s still in his prime.

On the other hand, he’s still in his prime, which presumably means his value is at its peak. He’s apparently pouting. Dortmund is out of the Champions League and the Bundesliga title race. Wouldn’t this be the perfect time to kick-start a rebuild? Or at least a retool? A restructuring of the team around others, whether the new focal points are new signings or current players?

The rumored price, $70 million, is far too low. But if Dortmund can squeeze $80-plus million out of Arsenal, it’s probably best to take the cash and move on.

19. Bayer Leverkusen (-2) — First defeat since September came at the hands of Bayern. Excusable.

20. Villarreal (NR) — Power Rankings debutant! The Yellow Submarine stunned Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. It has leapfrogged Sevilla into fifth in La Liga, and is the biggest threat to the current top four, despite selling its top scorer to China.

Best of the rest: Lyon, Porto, RB Leipzig, Marseille

Previous rankings: Nov. 23 | Dec. 6 | Dec. 21

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer, and occasionally other ball games, for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.