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Crossroads: The end of an era for Spain’s champions?

Real Madrid's striker Karim Benzema reacts as Valencia's midfielder Carlos Soler (unseen) scored the 3-1 goal from the penalty spot during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between Valencia CF and Real Madrid at Mestalla stadium in Valencia, eastern Spain, 08 November 2020. EPA/Kai Foersterling

What will it take to breathe some new life into Real Madrid?

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Spanish giants Real Madrid have dominated Europe over the past six years, spearheaded by magnificent Cristiano Ronaldo. With his departure and an ageing squad, it seems the team is at a crossroads.

Real Madrid barely made it into the 2020/2021 UEFA Champions League last 16.

They came into their crunch tie with Borussia Mönchengladbach knowing that anything less than a victory would see them fail to make it out of a Champions League group stage for the first time in their history.

Fortunately for Zinedine Zidane’s side, long-serving French forward Karim Benzema was on hand to spare their blushes with a brace that saw them beat pre-game group leaders Gladbach, and leapfrog them into first place.

Against the ropes

The struggles of Los Blancos have been aplenty this season. Having won their 34th La Liga crown in 2019/2020, they have struggled in the early stages of this season.

As it stands, they have lost three league games, which equates to the same number of games they lost in their whole league campaign in 2019/2020. They trail neighbours Atlético, who occupy the summit, by six points. They have also played a game more than their cross-town rivals.

As a result, the pressure is also increasing on the man who brought them three Champions League trophies in a row, as well as two La Liga crowns and two Fifa Club World Cup trophies.

The team’s only consolation might be the fact that their sworn rivals Barcelona are having an even worse time domestically, languishing in ninth place.

After the crucial win over Gladbach, Zidane was frank in assessing the prospects of his long-term future in his second spell with the 13-time European Champions, after briefly departing in 2018.

“I’m never going to be Madrid’s Alex Ferguson,” said Zidane. “I want to enjoy it and I don’t know how long I’m going to stay here… I just think about how lucky I am to be here but I do not know until when. There are many years left in Madrid and I want to continue.”

The Ronaldo Effect theory

What is the biggest difference for Zidane between now and his first spell in Madrid? The absence of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Football is a team sport, and it is often said that no player is bigger than the team. Although that may be true, there are players in great teams whose presence is simply immeasurable.

Ronaldo was that player for countless years at the reigning Spanish champions, climbing to inconceivable heights each season since joining from Manchester United in 2009.

He would go on to score 451 goals in just 438 competitive games for the club. He became the club’s all-time leading goal scorer, besting the iconic Raúl’s record by more than 100 goals – in just over half the games.

It took Raúl 741 games to reach his 323 goals, and even that seemed like a target no one would reach anytime soon. But Ronaldo has always played by his own rules.

When Madrid cashed in on an ageing Ronaldo, who was 33 at the time, by selling him to Juventus in 2018, it was good business in the boardroom. Especially since they sold him for a reported €100-million, and had bought him for €94-million in his prime.

On the pitch, however, the decision left an astronomical gap. One which they are yet to fill.

Frequently during Zidane’s first stint at the club, Ronaldo managed to deliver when the team most needed him. He scored decisive goals and was frequently the matchwinner.

“It is impossible to replace Cristiano, it doesn’t matter who you sign,” said Zidane after the sale of Ronaldo. “He has left the club and you can sign quality players but they will not achieve what he did at this club, but that is football.”

Zinedine Zidane, Head Coach of Real Madrid reacts during the La Liga Santander match between Real Madrid and Deportivo Alaves at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on November 28, 2020 in Madrid, Spain. Football Stadiums around Europe remain empty due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in fixtures being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

Hazard ahead

It’s proven so indeed. But it hasn’t been for  want of trying. Madrid signed Eden Hazard from Chelsea in the 2019 European summer transfer window, for the same amount (€100-million) they had sold Ronaldo for.

The Belgian superstar was handed Ronaldo’s number seven shirt, which had also previously been worn by Raúl. It seems the burden of expectation and the huge boots he was expected to fill have weighed him down.

The forward has played 28 matches for Madrid since his arrival, scoring a measly three goals in the process. Granted, injuries have ravaged the 29-year-old since his arrival in the Spanish capital. But even when he has played, he has been far from convincing.

They have been linked with French wunderkind Kylian Mbappe for a few years now, but he would likely cost them double what they paid for Hazard – if not more.

And with Madrid president Florentino Pérez seemingly having momentarily put aside his policy of signing a plethora of global superstars or Galácticos – instead buying potential stars such as Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior – it might be a while before they land the young Frenchman, if at all.

Maybe the need by Perez to recruit these youngsters is because he is aware of the financial challenges facing world football, which have been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. That and the inflated prices for footballers in the current market.

Ageing spine

This recruitment policy has left Zidane stuck with an ageing core squad, and young players with loads of potential but who haven’t quite tapped into it fully as yet.

In the current Madrid team, he is still heavily reliant on the players who were a great supporting cast as Ronaldo made magic and Los Blancos conquered Europe time and again.

Key and trusted players such as Benzema, Luka Modrić, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo and Toni Kroos are all 30 years and above. Hazard will be 30 in January 2021.

Make no mistake, they are still some of the best footballers in the world even as they near the twilight of their careers, but they are far from the peak of their powers.

“They are all incredible footballers who made history at Real Madrid, but your body tells you when you can’t get to the same heights. If they want to get to the same heights they were at they need new players,” television pundit Steve McManaman told BT Sport recently.

Whether it is Zidane or someone else at the helm, McManaman’s words will hold value until something changes. Or else Madrid’s form will continue to blow hot and cold. DM168

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