Football’s a funny old game. Roll back to before the winter break and Real Madrid didn’t only look invincible, but were invincible. Yet since setting a new Spanish record of 40 games unbeaten, the thought of Los Blancos giving up their Champions League crown at the last-16 stage to Napoli no longer seems such an impossibility.
Of course, it will still take a herculean effort from the Partenopei to have a shot at dethroning the holders, not to mention a little luck. But whereas they are firing on all cylinders at the moment, Madrid are not.
Los Merengues’ problems began to surface during their 3-3 draw with Sevilla in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals last month. Having led 3-0 from the first leg, Zinedine Zidane opted to experiment at Sanchez Pizjuan by naming an under-strength XI.
What followed was a bruising 90 minutes for Madrid, who simply couldn’t cope with the Andalusians’ intensity. Ultimately, though, individual quality coupled with their opponents running out of steam led to substitute Karim Benzema equalising at the death. The result ensured the capital giants made Spanish football history, it being their 40th game without defeat, but questions were immediately asked of Zidane for arguably the first time in his year-long reign.
Indeed, it was his decision to tinker that ruffled feathers. The Frenchman set his makeshift team up in a 4-4-2 formation, but had to go back to basics before an hour, with his side being badly over-run. Former Inter man Mateo Kovacic proved the game-changer, his introduction marking Madrid’s reversal to 4-3-3.
Despite this warning, Zidane experimented again in his team’s next match – another trip to Sevilla. The Coach debuted a three-man defence and was forced to defend his tactics after Stevan Jovetic condemned Madrid to a last-gasp 2-1 loss, their first since February 2016.
And when Zidane did the sensible thing, restoring Los Blancos’ tried and tested for their Copa semi-final first leg against Celta, the side appeared utterly disjointed as they crashed to a shock 2-1 defeat on home soil.
Since then, the back three has featured twice more – in the second leg against Celta, which ended 2-2 and resulted in the European champions’ elimination from the cup, and at La Liga’s basement boys Osasuna over the weekend.
Madrid’s preparation for the top-versus-bottom clash in Pamplona was far from desirable due to factors out of their control. Granted, they had not played in two weeks following the postponement of their match at Celta as a result of bad weather and damage to part of the Galicians’ stadium. Nonetheless, Los Merengues should’ve been fully refreshed, not rusty.
That sentiment was echoed by Zidane before the game, but Madrid played at El Sadar with seemingly little awareness of what they were doing. Sergio Leon’s equaliser, while a sublime finish, came via all three of the visitors’ defenders looking like deer trapped in headlights.
Unsurprisingly, Madrid prevailed once Zizou made the necessary adjustment of swapping a defender for the criminally-underused James Rodriguez. It’s worth noting, however, that the substitution was forced due to Danilo’s injury, although the former Juventus star deserves credit for deciding against a like-for-like change.
The Spanish Press have it on good authority that Zidane will cease to experiment for the remainder of the campaign, and that will come as a blow to Napoli, who were likely banking on any uncertainty.
The 44-year-old has long craved to put his stamp on the squad, and Gareth Bale’s long spell out was supposed to be the catalyst. However, as it stands, Zidane’s successful emulation of the 4-3-3 implemented by Carlo Ancelotti is Madrid’s best bet if they are to progress beyond the last 16.