Kiev, 26th May, 2018. Champions League Final day. For Real Madrid and Zinedine Zidane, the chance of an unprecedented 13th Champions League title – known to their expecting fans as ‘La Decimotercera’.
Though the match would eventually be dominated by the calamities of the opposition goalkeeper, Loris Karius, there was something special in the crisp, Ukrainian air, for Los Blacos that evening. A 3-1 victory felt inevitable, especially after Gareth Bale’s gravity-defying, time-stopping, overhead kick glided into the Liverpool net. Full time, and another Gareth Bale goal later, and Real Madrid become a byline for success, for dominance.
The win saw Zinedine Zidane, in just two-and-a-half seasons as manager at the club, win three Champions League titles, two FIFA World Cups, two UEFA Supercups, a La Liga and a Supercopa De España. His success was paralleled only by the herculean Cristiano Ronaldo, a true fine wine. A player who as each season passed, and he became older and older, his legacy just seemed to grow with him. Ronaldo just kept getting better. His iconic goal against Juventus in the semi-final of the Champions League encapsulated everything that period in his career stood for – sheer brilliance.
I suppose, in truth, Real Madrid just weren’t ready for the departure of the club’s two most important figures. But no team could be. To lose Zidane and Ronaldo, in the space of just over a month, left a chasm in the Spanish capital that was almost impossible to full. In an attempt to react quickly, Florentino Perez (Real Madrid’s president), found a replacement manager within a fortnight – a decision which in itself, would have an effect on the entire nation, not just Real.
He turned to ex-Madrid goalkeeper Julien Lopetegui, the then-manager of the Spanish national team, who was already in Russia ahead of the World Cup 2018. It was agreed that he would finish his World Cup journey with Spain, before taking the helm in Madrid. But he would never receive such a privilege. The Spanish FA were so angered by Lopetegui’s decision to take up a new job just days before the start of such a major tournament, that he was dismissed with instant effect.
It had been a tumultuous month inside the Santiago Bernebeu, to say the least.
In terms of replacing Cristiano Ronaldo however, there was no such reflex response. In fact, there wasn’t really a response at all. Real’s marquee summer signing came at the opposite end of the field, in Thibaut Courtois, but the only striker the club signed (or re-signed, I should say) was academy product Mariano Diaz, from Lyon. With all due respect to Mariano, despite receiving the iconic number 7 upon his return, he was never going to fill the boots of Cristiano. Perhaps this was Real Madrid’s first, and most costly, mistake.
A somewhat turbulent summer was reflected in Real’s first competitive game of the season, a 4-2 extra time defeat to neighbours Atletico Madrid, in the UEFA Super Cup. Lopetegui’s opening match had foreshadowed what was to come from the Spaniard, but despite this, they returned to start the domestic season in respectable fashion.
The Galacticos collected 13 points from their first possible 15, winning 4-1 twice, as well as beating Roma 3-0 in their opening Champions League match. But then came a tide-shifting 3-0 away thrashing to Sevilla. This defeat was then followed by unforgivable away losses to CSKA Moscow and Alaves, before a 2-1 humbling at the hands of Levante, in front of a capacity Santiago Bernebeu.
The only thing more daunting than the almost vertical terraces of the Bernebeu are the chronically inpatient and ever-perfectionist collection of 81,000 fans that fill it every week. Real Madrid fans demand nothing but the best, week in, week out. Not even the legendary Cristiano Ronaldo went criticism-free during his time in white, and after Lopetegui’s men just scraped past Viktoria Plzen, 2-1, in that same hostile environment, Julien faced a dreaded scenario:
Win his next game, or be sacked.
Unfortunately, Madrid’s next game was the hardest on their league fixture list. Barcelona, at the Nou Camp. El Clasico matches are not often associated with sympathy, but this one was particularly merciless. A 5-1 humiliation by their fiercest rivals, who were even without Lionel Messi that day, put an instant end to Lopetegui’s four-and-a-half month tenure as manager of Real Madrid.
As expected, such a sought-after opening span the rumour mill into overdrive: Antonio Conte, Laurent Blanc and even Arsene Wenger were all linked with the task of rebuilding the biggest football team in the world. The only thing that was certain is that in the meantime, Santiago Solari, manager of Real’s B team, would be put in temporary charge.
The calendar was far kinder to Solari than it was to his predecessor. His opening match was against minnows Melilla, in the Copa Del Rey, a match they won 4-0. Refreshing, comfortable wins against Valladolid, Plzen and Celta Vigo then followed, which lead to Madrid’s second costly mistake of the season.
After enjoying the best start of any manager in Real’s illustrious history, Solari was appointed as permanent manager, on a lengthy two-and-a-half year contract. Though promoting their reserve manager in a time of crisis had worked with Zidane’s upgrade from the Castilla, this one, to date, has not. Solari’s brief stint as caretaker manager provided Madrid with relief and temporary solidarity, but prompted a hurried reaction from the board.
Real travelled to lowly Eibar for Solari’s first match after putting pen to permanent paper, a game which alerted those inside the club as to the potential errors of their ways. A 3-0 defeat, which saw Los Blancos totally outclassed all over the pitch, highlighted just how serious the situation was.
Real Madrid had gone stale. Players, such as Isco, who would be the first name on the team sheets of almost any other club in the world, were frozen out of an injury-plagued squad. A lack of major signings in recent years, an absence of true Galacticos, was really starting to show.
The Bernabeu faithful have never been too concerned by league performance. Just two La Liga titles in nine years shows that. For Real Madrid, only one competition matters – the Champions League. And so far, their performances in Europe hadn’t suffered too badly.
That was until Real then suffered their heaviest home UCL loss in history, just two-and-a-half weeks later. Again, another 3-0 defeat, this time at the hands of CSKA Moscow, infuriated the fans. The poor domestic performances had finally seeped through onto the European front, which was communally seen as one step too far. The only positive from the performance was the clear improvement of 18 year-old Vinicius Jr, who was rapidly beginning to stake a claim for being the first choice left-winger at the club, which in itself, said a lot about the dire state the club was in. A teenager had become the only source of excitement.
This result’s blow was softened by Real travelling to Asia to win yet another FIFA World Club Cup, but considering they had faced Kashima Antlers and Al Ain on their path to lifting the trophy, it was seen as more of an expected triumph than one of reparation. But upon their return to Spain, it became clear that the break from domestic football had done little in terms of rejuvenating the squad. They squandered a 2-0 lead away at Villarreal to end up with a draw in their first game back, before losing at home to Real Sociedad.
Ten days on from that result, it is clear that the only objective for Madrid this season is finishing in a Champions League spot. Fourth place – potentially third – looks most likely given their current form, but the next two months hold some vital fixtures for the side from the capital which will dictate just how bad the memories of 2018/19 will be.
However this season ends, expect a summer of heavy investment from Madrid. Eden Hazard, who has been beckoning a transfer to Los Blancos to the point where it now seems inevitable, is amongst several names linked to bringing some much-needed life to the squad.
The fate of Santiago Solari will also be decided before the start of the next campaign, which looks more likely to end in disappointment than not. Any potential replacements are still unclear, but whoever is chosen to change the fate of the world’s biggest football club must do so quickly and effectively. There is no time for a period of rebuilding.
Watching Real Madrid at the moment is laborious, boring, frustrating. To see the players emerge from the tunnel at the Santiago Bernebeu, dressed all in white, is still just as awe-inspiring as it ever was – I was lucky enough to witness it myself earlier in the season. But the performances that follow are genuinely unbelievable to those who, like me, have grown up with Real Madrid being an ever-present superpower in world football.
The crisis is clear, but the solutions, unfortunately, are not.
Written by Dan Wiseman