Its been a bad week at the Bernabeu for Real Madrid, as Barcelona laid bare the growing gap between the clubs on the pitch and underlined how a major Los Blancos overhaul is required if the trend is to be redressed.
The Copa del Rey and La Liga defeats at the feet of Messi and co. put an end to Real’s hopes of domestic glory for another season, with the Champions League, success in which has tended to paper over Real’s shortcomings, now their only hope of redemption.
But in a campaign where they have lost eight of their 26 league games and suffered two Champions League group defeats to the less than mighty CSKA Moscow, European glory looks much less likely than in recent times.
Real, who are on their second manager of the season, are drifting. They’ve failed to replace the goals and influence of Cristiano Ronaldo in any meaningful way, and many of their remaining big names look like they need a new challenge or a change of scene. And even in the positives, there are negatives.
The new generation of players being integrated into the side – the likes of Vinicius Junior, Sergio Reguilon and Federico Valverde – look to have great futures ahead of them, but lack the consistency, composure and preciseness to stem the flow right now.
But the fact that over the two games with Barca last week, Real were looking to these players, and to the 18-year-old Vinicius in particular, for answers says much about where the club is right now.
These were two games – a cup semi-final and an opportunity to cut the gap to the leaders to just six points in La Liga – where you’d expect your established stars to take charge. But on both occasions, time and again, it was the left to the young Brazilian winger and the exciting fullback Reguilon behind him to carry the threat.
In Wednesday night’s clash, Vinicius was brilliant in almost everything he did – bar finishing. He had more attempts on goal that the entire Barcelona team, but the visitors nevertheless ran out 3-0 winners.
The result may have flattered the visitors a little – but the clinical nature in which they dispatched their opportunities spoke volumes.
The score line in Saturday night’s league fixture may have been closer, but in truth, this was a far more impressive run out from Valverde’s men.
Arthur Melo’s return to central midfield helped the visitors hold possession more consistently than they did in midweek, while Sergi Roberto and Ivan Rakitic down Barca’s right flank not only nullified the threat posed by Vinicius and Reguilon, but also combined to fashion the only goal of the game.
Perhaps the most striking aspect, however, was just how resolute and composed the visitors were in the face of a determined and fired up home side.
For Santiago Solari, there will be concern that despite having a good deal of possession and creating some decent openings in both games, his side were unable to find the back of the net.
He may also worry about the form and demeanour of Gareth Bale and Toni Kroos, both of whom offered little on Saturday night, and were replaced in the second half by Marco Asensio and Federico Valverde, as Solari looked to inject more verve and aggression into his line up.
Ultimately, his substitutions failed to turn the tide. Even the introduction of fan favourite Isco late on had little impact, leaving Real fans to wonder whether Solari may have begun to doubt himself a little, given he’d more or less frozen out the playmaker since taking the reins back in October.
Tuesday night sees a welcome return to the relative comfort of the Champions League, with Real well placed to qualify for the last eight once again.
Their 2-1 lead from the first leg in Amsterdam should be too much for the Dutch side to overcome. But given that Los Blancos have lost at home this season to the likes of Girona, Levante and Real Sociedad, Ajax will not be without hope.
But even if Solari’s men progress, the evidence of the season would suggest that another Champions League trophy should be beyond them and that the case for major surgery at the Bernabeu is incontrovertible.