Getting to the top of European football is one thing; staying there is another problem entirely, as Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid have discovered this season. After a run of phenomenal success that included consecutive Champions League wins, the Galácticos are at a low ebb, struggling domestically and in danger of ending the season without a trophy.
Knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Leganés, they are 14 points adrift of Barcelona in La Liga and also trail city rivals Atlético by seven points. Retaining their league title from this position appears to be an impossible task, even for the Galácticos.
The only bright spot so far this season – and the factor that may be keeping Zidane in his post – is the continuing progression in the Champions League. Real hold a 3-1 first-leg lead over Paris Saint-Germain in their last-16 game and will be clinging to the hope of recording a historic third Champions League title in a row, though anyone who is thinking of placing a bet on Stakers.com will need to know that they are currently fourth favorite.
What has gone wrong for Real? There is no one factor that can be identified to explain the problem, but there are a number of possible causes, the first being the failure to bring in adequate replacements for the players who departed last summer. The absence of Pepe, James Rodríguez, and Álvaro Morata has undoubtedly made the squad weaker and left Zidane with fewer options to turn things around.
Defensively, the team has struggled this year, conceding 1.1 goals per game in the league, compared to Barcelona’s 0.48, but this may be in part due to their problems going forward. Real depend on their star-studded forward line to a greater extent than their La Liga rivals, and all five of their main attacking players have struggled. That has put the midfield under extra pressure, which in turn has impacted on the defense.
Another contributing factor could be tensions in the dressing room. It has been rumoured repeatedly that there are arguments and dissension behind the scenes, and it has even been suggested that there are two factions in the squad, based around the team’s main characters, Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos. Whether these disagreements have been blown out of proportion isn’t clear, but if they are true, then solving the interpersonal problems in the dressing room will be top of Zidane’s agenda for turning the season around.
Beyond that, there is little that he can do in the short term, other than perhaps shaking up the forward line by moving players around or resting automatic selections Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. He might also play an extra player in midfield, which would at least offer more cover for the defense and help Real to control games more consistently. If he makes it to the end of the season, Zidane will be anxious to overhaul a squad that has become a little stale.
Already, there are rumors that Real could be selling a number of key players in the off-season, and a number of European clubs have expressed an interest in the likes of Raphaël Varane, Casemiro, and Toni Kroos. It has even been suggested that Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, and Benzema could be on the way out. While that would be a dramatic shake-up and a big risk, it would give Zidane the freedom that he needs to overhaul the squad.
Top of the list is likely to be a consistent, top-class goalkeeper. Neither Diego López nor Keylor Navas have been able to fill the boots of Iker Casillas, and Zidane may try to tempt players such as Thibaut Courtois or David de Gea to Madrid.
Zidane might also attempt to pull off a coup by attracting Neymar back to Spain. If Real let Bale go, the Brazilian star would represent an ideal replacement – and an upgrade. As one of the top three players in world football, he would be a typical Galácticos signing and has the potential to be the fulcrum of a new-look Real side for several seasons to come.
Finally, Zidane will also be keen to bring in a world-class striker. With Benzema in decline, Isco out of form, and Borja Mayoral not yet the finished article, an established star such as Harry Kane or Robert Lewandowski would fit the bill and give Real the firepower that they will need to recapture their domestic dominance and return to the top of La Liga next year.