MADRID (AFP) – Real Madrid’s slump in form has alarms ringing in the Spanish capital, but pretenders to the champions’ European crown should beware: Real are often a different animal in the spring.
A familiar foe in recent seasons, Borussia Dortmund, visit the Santiago Bernabeu for the fifth time in five years tonight.
However, for once there is precious little on the line with the Germans already eliminated from the Champions League and Real certain to finish second in Group H behind Tottenham Hotspur.
Two years ago, Madrid were in such mid-season crisis that Rafael Benitez was sacked in January. Zinedine Zidane took over and five months later won the Champions League.
Last season, Zidane’s men finished second in their group, but still qualified behind Dortmund and went on to retain their European title.
This winter has brought another crisis. A 0-0 draw at Athletic Bilbao on Saturday left Real eight points adrift of Barcelona at the top of La Liga, having failed to win six of 14 league games so far this season.
An unusual lack of firepower has hobbled the Spanish giants with Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema scoring a meagre four La Liga goals combined and Gareth Bale sidelined for most of the season by a series of injuries.
The Champions League has been a different story, though, as Ronaldo once again leads all scorers with eight in five games.
Throughout his nine seasons with Real, Benzema has also tended to save his best for the European stage and he became the fifth-top scorer in the competition’s history with a double in a 6-0 rout of APOEL Nicosia two weeks ago.
Poor domestic form has historically only made Madrid stronger come the business end of the Champions League.
Last season’s La Liga and Champions League double was a first for 59 years with Los Blancos having won the European Cup, or Champions League, eight times in that span.
There is a feeling that this Madrid squad is not as strong as last season. Ronaldo even admitted, following a first group stage defeat for five years, at Spurs last month that the departures of Alvaro Morata, James Rodriguez and Pepe over the summer had left the current squad lacking “experience.”
The squad has also lost depth, with Zidane yet to fully trust summer recruits Theo Hernandez, Dani Ceballos and Jesus Vallejo.
“I also think the Real Madrid squad is inferior, they have lost potential compared to last season,” Valencia coach Marcelino Garcia Toral, whose side lead Madrid by three points in La Liga, said on Sunday.
However, Zidane insists the level of performance is the same and all that is missing is a killer touch in front of goal.
“Last season we would score goals in the last minute and at the moment that isn’t happening,” said Zidane on Saturday.
“We need to keep going and think that there will be better moments to come.”
Ronaldo was also questioned this time last year after an unusually slow start to the season before coming alive to score 10 goals from the Champions League quarter-finals on that will see him win the Ballon d’Or for a fifth time this week.
The fatigue affecting key members of the squad like Marcelo, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos could also be eradicated should Real prioritise Champions League glory once more come the new year, whilst Zidane remains confident Bale can return better than ever.
“Madrid always come back,” Real captain Sergio Ramos warned after the Spurs defeat.
The more in-form Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City deserve their status as Champions League favourites with 100 percent records so far, but both should be wary of a Real return to form come the knockout stages.