MADRID, Spain, Feb 27 – Zinedine Zidane said Real Madrid are down but not out in the Champions League yet the stark reality is their season could be over in March for a second year running if they keep unravelling in the Clasico on Sunday.
In more than half a century of playing in Europe’s premier competition, Real have never overturned a first leg defeat at home to go through, indicating the size of the task in front of them when they face Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on March 10.
“We know the situation, we have to go there and win,” Zidane said.
“If there is any team that can do it, with their experience and history, it is Real Madrid,” admitted Pep Guardiola.
But even if the 2-1 loss is still retrievable, a five-point deficit behind Barcelona in La Liga might not be, should Zidane’s team do the unthinkable and make it three consecutive defeats in the week that was billed as potentially season-defining.
They can take heart from Barca’s own, numerous, fallibilities but lose this weekend, and a kind run-in for the Catalans that includes only one more away game versus La Liga’s top six, would not offer too many chances for Madrid to get back.
In his press conference late on Wednesday, Zidane lamented a string of defensive errors in a wild 12 minutes which surrendered what would have been a decent 1-0 advantage, and instead handed control to City.
“What bothers me is that we played well only to make those mistakes at the end,” he said. “The final 10 minutes was very bad.”
Sergio Ramos, whose form has been wavering for weeks, was caught under Kevin de Bruyne’s cross before a weak hand from Thibaut Courtois failed to keep out Gabriel Jesus’ header.
The usually dependable Dani Carvajal then gave away the winning penalty after inexplicably sliding in on Raheem Sterling.
Ramos’ split-second decision to bring down Jesus to incur a red card and suspension might still prove astute, given Real’s chances in the second leg are probably improved with two away goals to chase without their captain, rather than three and with him.
“We can think about yesterday’s defeat or work on tomorrow’s win,” wrote Ramos on social media.
“I choose the latter. Head and heart already on el Clasico.”
– Clasico statement –
But Zidane’s concern will be his goal-shy team has become even less of a threat with the alarming decline of Karim Benzema, who scored 16 goals from August to December but only has two so far this year.
And that a side which has relied heavily on its solidity at the back has become increasingly prone to the kind of nervy errors that were a regular feature of its failures last season.
Twelve months ago to the day, Real were beaten 3-0 by Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu in the Copa del Rey, shortly after losing at home to Girona in the league.
Another La Liga defeat to Barca and humiliation at the hands of Ajax effectively put Real out of all three competitions in seven days and swiftly put coach Santiago Solari out of a job.
An equivalent implosion is not possible and not probable either, given Zidane has far more credit in the bank than Solari ever did.
But Zidane will know too how quickly patience can wear thin.
“In football, you can’t control everything,” he said.
“We are on a bad run, that’s a fact, but we have to pull ourselves out of it. Sunday is a chance to do that.”
When Zidane replaced Solari, he pledged to reorder the club’s priorities, with La Liga at top of the list, following a decade domestically dominated by the Catalans and Lionel Messi.
In that sense, all is not lost. Defeat to City could even become palatable if it precedes, or even helps, Real winning a first league title since 2017 and second in eight years. But against Barca, they have to respond.