Barca dropped points at home to Celta Vigo, while Madrid could only draw 0-0 with a poor Athletic Bilbao side who three days before had been knocked out of the cup by third-division opponents.
It was a miserable return and more proof that all is not well with the Champions League and La Liga holders. So the big question is whether Real Madrid need to win the Clasico to save their season.
Is that how bad things are? Clasico or bust?
This is Madrid’s worst start since 2008 so they need a boost of some sort. Barcelona could open up an 11-point lead if they beat Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on December 23 but if Madrid win they trim it to five. No need to cancel Christmas. Of course the league is not Madrid’s only concern and they could be World Club Champions by the time the game is played. But the affect on morale if they are so far out of the title race this early will be huge.
Why have they fallen so far behind?
They can’t score goals. Not since the 2006-07 season have they scored so few at this stage, just 25 in 14 games. Gareth Bale has not been on the pitch to score. Alvaro Morata, who already had four goals at this point of the last campaign, is now scoring them for Chelsea, and Karim Benzema has scored just twice. And Ronaldo, who has dug Madrid out of so many holes since he signed in 2009, has not been able to deliver in the league.
He’s not scoring either?
Ronaldo’s had 68 shots… and scored twice. And the connection between him and Benzema is no longer there. They failed to pass the ball to each other once in the first half on Saturday. They miss Bale and his pace forcing rival defences back and so opening up space. In this Madrid team everyone runs towards the ball, no one goes long. ‘I’m not worried we are just missing goals at the moment,’ said Zidane at the weekend. But he knows goals are everything.
And with no Morata no one is scoring from the bench?
No one is doing anything from the bench. Zinedine Zidane has almost no faith in his reserves. Last season Morata scored 20 goals from the bench and James Rodriguez could be relied upon to make something happen when he came on. This year the minutes are not being shared out. At this point of last season Raphael Varane had played the most at 1,426 according to Diario AS’s figures.
This season, in contrast, six players have played more than that with Sergio Ramos already clocking up 1,600. Zidane has concentrated on 13 players – there is massive gaps between Marco Asensio’s 1,112 minutes played and 14th man Lucas Vazquez who has played just 764 minutes. It’s no longer a squad game for Zizou.
And disgruntled reserves don’t help…
The squad had an incredible spirit last season. But that togetherness has gone. The likes of Dani Ceballos and Theo Hernandez look sullen on the touchline, bitter at so little involvement. Borja Mayoral scores two goals in the cup and then barely gets a run-out in the next game, he could be forgiven for feeling demotivated. And the one reserve Zidane has kept some faith in, Lucas Vazquez, no longer makes an impact when he is used.
Do they lack leaders to get them out of this?
Ramos does not lack leadership but he will not even be on the pitch for their huge game at home to Sevilla next week after picking up his 24th red card for the club. He now holds the Liga record with 19 reds in the competition. His brother and agent Rene tweeted that he had only accumulated so many because he had played so many games – 19 reds in 416 appearances.
Twitter was unforgiving pointing out that Maldini was sent off four times in 886 games and that Carles Puyol only saw red three times in 593 matches. Ramos will stand up to be counted as will Marcelo and Dani Carvajal. The leadership needs to come from the forwards too but Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale are all fighting their own private battles.
What happened to Bale? Had he not come back to save their season? He was missing at the weekend again
The club and the people looking after Bale are determined that he will not suffer another long-term injury. He needs to be fit and flying if Madrid are to turn things around. So the plan is for him to come back gradually and not to play two games in a week if possible. They need him next Saturday against Sevilla who now have the same amount of points as Madrid and could even knock them out of the top four next weekend.
That means he will probably not feature against Dortmund in midweek. If he plays against Sevilla, don’t be surprised if he takes another rest before the Club World Cup and the big one on December 23. A big Clasico performance from him would help Madrid topple the leaders.
Okay enough gloom and doom… what reasons to be cheerful?
Reasons to be cheerful one, two, three. Okay here goes. No 1: The injured players are coming back. Mateo Kovacic, Marco Asensio and Bale can all contribute again. And they are all important. No 2: Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti is out for two weeks. They don’t have many options at centre-back and are now relying on Javier Mascherano and Thomas Vermaelen to pair with Gerard Pique. Umtiti is a huge loss. He definitely misses the Clasico and that is great news for Madrid.
No 3: It’s the January transfer window soon. Madrid don’t like using it but if they come back from Abu Dhabi without the Club World Cup and then lose to Barcelona they can always go crazy when the window opens.