Evidence of their burning desire to win or a sign that they are beginning to blow a bit as they approach the final bend – Real Madrid’s recent form is something of a puzzler.
Since the turn of the year, Los Blancos have won nine, lost two and drawn one in the league, while qualifying relatively comfortably for the last eight of the Champions League. But things haven’t felt quite right.
The two La Liga defeats at Sevilla and Valencia obviously catch the eye – as up to the 15th of January and their visit to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, they had been unbeaten in La Liga and were on a run that stretched right back to last February.
Later that same week, Celta Vigo won 2-1 at the Bernabeu in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarter final – a result Zinedine Zidane’s men were unable to overturn seven days later. The cup may have been lower on their list of priorities, undoubtedly, but their exit was a surprise all the same.
However, four subsequent league wins on the bounce and a 3-1 home win over Napoli in the round of 16 of the Champions League suggested Real Madrid had negotiated a mid-season wobble.
But then defeat at the Mestalla against Valencia opened the door once more for title rivals Barcelona and Sevilla. Since that reverse in late February, Real recovered once again – at least in terms of results – winning four and drawing one of their next five league games, including a hard fought 2-1 win at the San Mames on Saturday, and recording another 3-1 win over Napoli to progress in Europe.
But while they put the scores on the board, they have been making heavy weather of things. In fact, in four of the six games that followed the Valencia defeat, they have had to dig deep and come from behind. Away to Villarreal, they fell two behind early in the second half before grabbing an unlikely victory.
In their next fixture, at home to Las Palmas, down to ten men and 3-1 down, they grabbed a fortuitous 3-3 draw with two Cristiano Ronaldo goals in the last five minutes.
The trip to the Stadio Sao Paolo in Naples also proved a test. One down at half time and struggling to cope with Napoli’s high press, they managed to turn the tables in the second half to see off the spirited Italians.
And last week, it took another turnaround and a dramatic last gasp winner from Sergio Ramos to defeat Real Betis and return Los Blancos to the top of the table.
Saturday’s win over Athletic Bilbao was slightly more impressive, in truth, given the home form of Los Leones – who had been unbeaten in their last 13 league games at the imposing San Mames (10 wins and three draws).
Again, however, Real had to work very hard to prevail after Karim Benzema’s first half strike was cancelled out by Aritz Aduriz – with the unlikely figure of Casemiro scoring only his third La Liga goal of the season to secure victory.
Having watched their recent performances, the character shown by Zidane’s men has certainly been striking, underlining that talent alone isn’t enough to bring success.
But the question remains as to whether Los Blancos are simply doing what the best sides do – digging out results despite a loss of form – or whether they are simply getting away with things, being let off the hook by sides unable to put them to the sword.
April may well prove decisive in their quest for a La Liga and Champions League double and provide us with a definitive answer. And eye-watering nine fixtures, including crunch ties with Atletico Madrid and Barcelona in the league and the mouth-watering Champions League quarter-final clashes with Bayern Munich, will test both character and limbs alike.
If they can make it through the month largely unscathed, then the question marks will fade and history will beckon. But if they continue to look leggy and yield the kinds of opportunities they’ve afforded lesser sides in recent months, then Zidane’s rather rudimentary tactical underpinning and his reliance on individual rather than collective brilliance may well buckle under the strain.