Fleeting success isn’t enough at the biggest club in the world. Real Madrid demand excellence.
Trophies and accolades are unflinching pre-requisites in an environment where even the most hidebound of coaches are strangled.
For most of his tenure as Merengues boss, Zinedine Zidane has flourished under those exquisite demands, nabbing two Champions Leagues in his first two seasons.
The current campaign, however, has been beset with difficulty. The Madrid side trail Barcelona by 15 points in LaLiga, with Cristiano Ronaldo having the most difficult season of his career before a triumphant return to form over the past few months.
Real have been similarly erratic in Europe, qualifying behind Tottenham Hotspur in the group stages before profiting from Paris Saint-Germain’s inferiority complex in the Round of 16.
A pulverising 3-0 win away to Juventus last week hinted at a return to form but the chances of Real winning a third European title are slim. Here's why:
A threadbare squad
Madrid’s roster was devastated in the summer.
While Alvaro Morata, Pepe, and James Rodríguez were never automatic starters in the last campaign, they were reliable and effective squad players who made a telling contribution as the fixtures piled up. All three were allowed to depart the club, and none of them were meaningfully replaced.
Zidane, to his credit, has turned towards youthful options like Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez to fill the gap but neither should be expected to carry the burden they currently shoulder in a squad that’s been rendered threadbare.
All around the starting XI there are weak spots where, despite the fact that Real Madrid have genuinely world-class starting options, a couple of injuries could see them suffer. As the season draws to a close, tired bodies could turn into injured bodies and, in the case of Real, this could be disastrous.
Domestically, the campaign has been a disaster. As well as being outside the top places in the league, the Merengues have suffered an ignominious exit from the Copa Del Rey. The Champions League, therefore, is their only hope for a major trophy.
Of course, a club of this stature is used to performing under pressure. Zidane, however, has been quick to dampen expectations in a team that has struggled to emulate its achievements of the previous year.
“I don’t like that and I don’t want to hear anything” said the Madrid manager when asked about whether his side were favourites to win the competition.
“All of the world will try to say that we are in the semis and that we will win the Champions League, but we will suffer a lot on Wednesday.”
It was a strange line to take. Zidane might have been trying to dampen complacency amongst his squad. However, the lack of self-assurance might also bleed into his players' minds.
Reliant on Ronnie
Real Madrid should not be relying on the performances of a 33-year-old striker for their title hopes.
Cristiano Ronaldo, of course, is no ordinary forward: the Portuguese is a phenomenon, even in his advancing years. He is particularly lethal in the Champions League, his spectacular overhead kick against Juventus reminding the world of his fearsome talents.
If Ronaldo has an off-day, however, where else does the inspiration come from? Karim Benzema is enduring another season-long slog, whilst Gareth Bale has a semi-permanent place on the bench. Marco Asensio is capable of jaw-dropping moments, but he has already dug his side out of several messes in this campaign.
Real Madrid might have a glittering record on the European stage but this is a squad in need of urgent rejuvenation. Their key players are aging and their rivals are strengthening; the old order can only withstand so much.
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