When you’re chasing down Usain Bolt, there’s no room for error. Every stride needs to be expertly — no, perfectly — executed, every muscle in each foot maxed out to its capacity. The slightest stumble, whether an actual head-over-heels stumble or a mere stuttered exhale from a set of emptied lungs, and it’s over; the Jamaican has already won. Right now, Real Madrid are chasing Bolt, and they’ve just stumbled out of the blocks.
In what was a surefire three points on paper, Real Madrid could only draw at newly promoted Sporting Gijon in last weekend’s opening matchday of La Liga. Earlier that afternoon, about 300 kilometers east, Barcelona had picked up where they left off last campaign with a 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao at San Mames. As it stands, it’s only a two-point gap between Barca and Madrid after Fecha 1. But as we’ve seen in recent seasons, every point counts at the top of the Primera.
Sporting were quite brilliant against Real last Sunday. Manager Abelardo has formed his squad into a defensive stalwart over his time at the Molinon, and it really shone against Madrid. Despite Madrid’s 27 shots to their six — 10 belonging to Ronaldo alone — the Rojiblancos clogged lanes and freshly counterattacked, proving that they weren’t planning to be pushovers on the day, nor the season. After the match, Abelardo astutely claimed that “humility and solidarity won the day.”
While Abelardo is certainly right that sheer hard work can often triumph over perceived quality, his words don’t specifically speak to his opponent’s real issues. Sloppy touches and errant passing capped with horrid finishing is what killed Madrid on Sunday — this has largely been the story ever since new boss Rafa Benitez arrived in June.
Madrid have failed to score in five of the eight matches under Benitez so far, including preseason. Not an enviable start to life in the capital for a manager nobody even wanted in the first place. Well, nobody apart from one man.
At Real Madrid, there is a definite breaking point for all things good, and it’s established by club president Florentino Perez. The 68-year-old executive is the brain behind allowing Iker Casillas to leave for Porto and giving Carlo Ancelotti the axe just one year after leading Madrid to a record 10th Champions League title.
Perez has his ideas of what works and what doesn’t, of who can stay and who absolutely, positively needs to go. Casillas had to go. Ancelotti had to go. Benitez had to come. These moves don’t stand to reason, but that’s normal. It’s the oblivious, at times self-affirming, world Perez lives in.
Most watching the relationship between Perez and Benitez don’t expect it to last very long. As has been the case with many of Benitez’s teams over the span of his career, this Madrid side simply flatter to deceive. We see the names on the teamsheet — Ronaldo, Bale, James, Ramos, Kroos, Isco, Modric — but are blind to witness any cohesion or inspiration on-the-pitch.
What’s particularly worrying about Madrid’s current plight is that today’s version of Barca that they’re chasing isn’t comparable to an Olympic-ready Bolt, but rather an offseason, pre-training camp Bolt. Neymar has been out with a severe case of mumps, Thomas Vermaelen only just made his Liga debut, and, of course, Xavi Hernandez officially has left the building. If there was ever a time for Real Madrid to strike and show the reigning champs that there’s a sincere title race to be had in 2015/16, last weekend would’ve been it.
But let’s not pop the silver medals in the fire just yet. Benitez and Real Madrid have plenty of time — 37 games, to be exact — to “fix” what’s wrong, if something indeed is. Los Blancos welcome another promoted side, Real Betis, to the Bernabeu on Saturday. One would expect this game to carry extra meaning; a home-opener, and a chance to quell the underlying fears that are currently circulating under the immaculate turf and packed stands of their lauded stadium.
Beyond Betis, a path of mostly winnable fixtures lie ahead until Madrid visit their crosstown foes and possible title contenders, Atletico Madrid, in early October. Anything less than top-of-the-table come the game at the Calderon will undoubtedly coincide with crisis time at the Bernabeu. Roles will be shuffled, and jobs may even be lost.
Unfortunately, many in the football world, including a large number within the capital itself, carry little faith in Benitez’s ability to mould a championship caliber team, particularly when there’s a Catalan monster heeling you in the face every time you reach for the next rung.
The Spaniard hasn’t won a league title since his glory days at Valencia over a decade ago. Sure, he knocked off a team full of Galacticos during his reign at the Mestalla. But today, the Galacticos are wearing blaugrana and sporting one of the greatest attacking lineups the game has ever seen. La Liga may be a marathon, but Benitez better start sprinting now.