Real Madrid fans at the Bernabeu on Wednesday fell just short of singing “can we play you every week?” during the raucous celebrations that greeted their team’s second and third goals. But there was a similar sentiment bubbling under the surface of the unbridled joy in the stands: can we play in the Champions League every week?
Ever since Zinedine Zidane took over as Madrid manager in January 2016 his side have risen to the occasion in Europe. One of his earliest assignments was to overturn a 2-0 deficit against Wolfsburg, which proved the launch pad for a timely boost of confidence that carried Real to the summit of Europe and within a point of matching Barcelona’s La Liga total, having been 10 points adrift with eight games remaining.
After Wolfsburg, when a Cristiano Ronaldo free kick found its way through the tightest of cracks in the defensive wall to seal a 3-0 win, Real didn’t lose a single game for the remainder of 2015-16.
Zidane will hope Wednesday’s cathartic victory will provide a similar catalyst to end a disastrous domestic campaign on a slightly higher note and the European season where they started it, as holders of the Champions League. If that comes to fruition, they would become first side since Bayern Munich in 1976 to win the continent’s elite club competition three times on the bounce.
On Thursday, as the pro-Madrid press revelled in what was a stirring victory there was of course no mention of the perils that lie ahead: Barcelona, Pep Guardiola’s free-flowing Manchester City or a Liverpool team that put five past Porto in the Estadio do Dragao and are capable of doing the same to pretty much any side in Europe.
For now, Madrid did what was needed to turn the immediate corner. An away goal will almost certainly seal the tie — although PSG know as well as anyone that miracles do happen — and that is more than any but the most ardent of Madridistas would have bet the mortgage against on Wednesday morning. The last time Madrid failed to score in a home or away Champions League game was against Man City almost two years ago.
But Zidane and his side must now turn their attention back to the more mundane matter of La Liga, a ship that sailed some time ago and is now more than at any stage previously this season an unwelcome set of stops on a luxury European cruise. Domestic games will help to keep players in trim but may also serve to deprive Zidane of key personnel in the Champions League. There is also the lingering spectre of Europa League football next season to consider, although that nightmare scenario has faded along with Valencia’s title challenge and Villarreal’s form.
Even so, the comfort of fourth in La Liga offering direct qualification this season is not something that Florentino Perez will take much from himself. The fact that his €497 million squad are only seven points better off than Eibar, a club with an entire annual budget more or less equal to Ronaldo’s yearly salary, is hardly where Real Madrid’s infamously demanding fans would normally expect to be.
After the PSG game, goal scorer Adrien Rabiot noted: “It’s all well and good putting eight goals past Dijon, but it’s in matches like this that you have to stand up and be counted.”
This season, Madrid have faced entirely the opposite problem. The list of sides to have taken points from the reigning champions in La Liga is extensive and not exclusive: Valencia, Levante (twice), Girona, Atletico Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Barcelona, Villarreal, Celta Vigo and Real Betis.
The latter pulled off a perfect smash-and-grab in the Bernabeu last September and have beaten the sides currently occupying sixth and fifth as well as Madrid over the course of the season. Quique Setien is a coach who favours attacking football and that has led to some remarkable results: Betis have scored three or more five times but only three of those games were victories. They have also shipped four or more four times and conceded 10 across two consecutive games in October. Only two sides have conceded more than Betis’ 45 and they are both unsurprisingly rooted in the relegation zone. Betis are eighth and four points off Villarreal in fifth: only five sides have scored more than Setien’s wildly erratic swashbucklers.
Zidane’s side have five Liga fixtures in two weeks before the return leg against PSG, four of which are against teams in the bottom half of the table. A haul of 15 points in those games would go a long way towards preventing disaster in La Liga and allow the Frenchman’s players the luxury of focusing entirely on the only tournament that matters now. As Sergio Ramos admitted after Real Sociedad were afforded a couple of free second-half goals last weekend: “I’d be lying if I said we weren’t thinking about PSG.”
With that job halfway done, there should be no excuses remaining for further domestic slip-ups between now and March 6. Take an eye off the ball in the Villamarin and it’s likely to wind up in the back of the net.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.