Perhaps when Marca described Real Madrid’s Champions League exit at the hands of Juventus as the fiasco of the century, the paper was referring more to how the club is being run and the team’s declining performances since the turn of the year and than just Wednesday night’s events at the Bernabeu.
Having lost two of their first three La Liga fixtures at the start of the season, Los Merengues then went on a coruscating, record breaking 22 game winning streak that included winning 12 games on the bounce in La Liga (scoring 50 times) strolling through their Champions League group (six wins from six games, 16 goals and a demolition job on Liverpool at Anfield along the way) and breezing to FIFA World Club Cup victory in Morocco.
Come the winter break, Carlo Ancelotti’s men were on top of the world and top in Spain. Barca and Atletico Madrid were breathing down their necks, but there was little to suggest at that stage that Real could end the season without adding a major gong to their trophy cabinet.
But damaging La Liga defeats in January to Valencia, to Atleti in February, and to Athletico Bilbao and Barcelona in March saw Real Madrid lose momentum in the league and cede top spot to their Catalan rivals.
Since Christmas, they also exited the Spanish Cup and then stumbled past Schalke and neighbours Atletico in the Champions League, before last week’s disastrous exit at the Bernabeu. In a way, what seems surprising is that people were entirely surprised at all.
Los Merengues have looked to be running on empty at times in recent weeks, their class still enough to sweep aside the also-rans in Spain, but against better opposition, their lack of energy and spark and the loss of Luka Modric was taking its toll.
Allowing Juve to take a lead to Madrid in their semi final spelt danger. And while they quickly put themselves in the driving seat with Ronaldo’s first half penalty, they never looked entirely in control of matters.
They struggled all night to open up Juve’s defence and couldn’t match their visitors’ aggression, physicality and energy. And when they conceded to old boy Alvaro Morata, it looked as if whatever energy and belief that had remained quickly evaporated.
So who to blame? Yes, the injury to Modric and Karem Benzema’s lack of fitness had a major impact. But for a club with Real’s resources and their financial outlay on players in recent seasons, they shouldn’t be allowed use injury as an excuse.
Ancelotti certainly comes under the spotlight. Far too often, Real look like a side without a clear strategy, relying heavily on the almost unparalleled talents of Cristiano Ronaldo and moment of magic from their assorted Galacticos.
The manager may argue that his hands are largely tied by club president Florentino Perez – whose focus isn’t always on a footballing bottom line. For him, the club is a Disneyland selling dreams and parading stars.
That his model has been a huge commercial success cannot be denied, but on the pitch, the story is quite different.
Season 2014/15 will in all likelihood see the club end up empty handed for the second time in three seasons. In fact, in the last 12 seasons, Real have been trophy less on seven occasions. Florentino Perez has been president in six of those seven seasons.
The Galacticos model is great for business, but isn’t necessarily compatible with on-pitch success. The decision to let midfield lynchpin Xabi Alonso and box-to-box dynamo Angel Di Maria leave and replace them with attacking midfielder Toni Kroos and the artistry of James Rodriguez underlines the point. Perez’s demands have left the manager with an unbalanced squad that is unfit for purpose.
Ancelotti rightly argued recently that those decisions left him light in midfield. However, he cannot escape the criticism that he is too eager to follow rather than lead, evidenced by how rarely he rested or rotated his stars, in deference to the wishes of his boss who needs them front and centre at all times.
Strangely, however, that quiescence is the Italian’s only real hope of keeping his job. After all, that is ultimately what the president wants of his coach. The likes of Jurgen Klopp and even Rafa Benitez are unlikely to doff their caps so easily.