Real Madrid are through to the quarterfinals of the Champions League. They handled Paris Saint-Germain easily, beating them 3-1 at home, and 2-1 in Paris. Most years Real Madrid advancing, even against a side as good as PSG, wouldn’t be news. They’ve won three out of the past four Champions League titles and they’re one of the best teams in the world — of course they’d advance. But, this season Los Blancos are mired in a disastrous league campaign. They sit third in La Liga with only 54 points after 27 games. That’s a 76-point pace, a massive drop from the 93 points they won the league with last season.
The question of what happened to Real Madrid, like everything else at the club, revolves around the team’s megawatt star Cristiano Ronaldo (pictured above). Ronaldo is now 33 years old and well past the time when most soccer players begin to lose a step or two. And while he’s evolved as he’s aged, shifting from a winger to a pure forward, before this year he hadn’t come close to slowing down. That certainly seemed different over the first half of this season. Ronaldo started 10 games before Christmas (he began the year with a five-game suspension) and accumulated almost 10 expected goals. The problem is, he also only scored four actual goals. By the time Christmas rolled around, Madrid were 14 points behind Barcelona and their domestic campaign was over.
Whatever voodoo hex was hanging over Ronaldo didn’t seem to apply to the Champions League, though. In Europe he poured in the goals during the group stages without a problem, scoring five in six matches. And, despite two disappointing results against Tottenham, drawing at home and losing on the road, Madrid progressed fairly comfortably out of their group. The bad mojo was confined to Spain.
But after the turn of the year, somebody at Madrid’s Bernabeu Stadium must have paid the water bill because the goals are flowing again. They’ve scored 35 goals in that time, 10 more than anybody else (albeit with an extra game played), a total that far outstrips their expected goal total of a little more than 27. It’s important to note that the expected goal total is itself 10 ahead of Barcelona’s second-highest tally. And Ronaldo is back to his normal self with 12 goals in nine games, just over his 11 expected goals.
The quick and easy thing to do is to declare Madrid’s problems over and watch them waltz happily off into the sunset. Sure, maybe a weirdly bad first half of the season cost them any shot at another La Liga title, but with their shooting boots back they should be just as prepared as ever to make a strong, deep, Champions League run.
There’s a slight problem with that, though.
The reality is that despite all that scoring, Madrid’s results haven’t actually improved very much. Taking 23 points from 11 games in 2018 is barely better than taking 31 from 16 in 2017.
So, why the disconnect? Madrid have certainly put up some eye watering goal scoring numbers, but they’ve done it by absolutely pasting a handful of weak teams, while failing to consistently beat better sides. The entire run contains only one real signature result, a 4-1 away victory against current fourth-place side Valencia. The only other teams in the top half of the table they played during the run were sixth-place Villareal, who beat Madrid 1-0 in Madrid and ninth-place Celta Vigo who drew against them 2-2. Meanwhile Madrid hung a seven spot on 19th place Deportivo, put five past 12th place Real Sociedad and 10th place Real Betis (they actually trailed Bettis 2-1 at halftime before scoring three goals in a 15-minute stretch in the second half to pull away) and beat 16th place Alaves 4-0.
And Ronaldo more or less followed suit. In Madrid’s notable win against Valencia he scored twice, against Celta Vigo and Villareal he was shut down. The Villareal game in particular was notable as an especially cursed performance. He took 11 shots, worth 1.45 expected goals total and still couldn’t find a way to get the ball into the back of the net. He rained down goals on the also-rans, though. There was a hat-trick against Sociedad and braces against Deportivo, Alaves, and 11th place Getafe.
Beating up on bad teams isn’t exactly a unique thing for Real Madrid. The reality is that it’s what all good teams do. The best teams in the world beat up on everybody, and beat the absolute snot out of the really poor teams. That’s what makes them the best teams in the world, and it’s what makes bad teams, well, bad. The concern with Madrid is that their return to form bullying the bottom half of La Liga hasn’t coincided with them consistently beating a slightly better caliber of opponent.
That’s why the Champions League tie against PSG is such an important data point. Even without Neymar there was reason to worry, and Madrid handled their business. Ronaldo also scored three goals (two from open play and a penalty), including the opener in the second leg which effectively put the match away. It’s also why the next two weeks are unusually interesting for Madrid in La Liga.
Madrid effectively have nothing left to play for in the league. The title is well out of reach and they are nine points ahead of fifth place Sevilla’s chances of falling out of the top four and the Champions League places are minimal. But, over the next two weeks Madrid play a couple of surprisingly feisty teams. First they travel to eighth-place Eibar on Saturday and then they host seventh-place Girona on the March 18.
The teams have both been surprisingly effective this year, and if Madrid can make easy work of them, it will be an indication that Ronaldo & Co. really are rounding into form and might be able to once against challenge for the Champions League. It’s a simple idea, really: If Real Madrid prove they can comfortably beat pretty good teams consistently, it becomes easier to believe they might beat really good teams.
Eibar is one of the most aggressive defensive pressing teams in the league. They also don’t quite have the talent level to back up their audacity. They’ve conceded 39 goals, though expected goals predicts it should be closer to 34, which would be the eighth-stingiest defense in the league. They look to pressure teams into making bad passes then pick the ball off — their 15.3 interceptions per game is the most in La Liga — and spring into attack. If Madrid are playing well, they should have no problem cutting Eibar’s press apart and running at their back line.
Girona on the other hand is a strong defensive squad. Rather than intercept and counter, they prefer to contain teams, violently if necessary. They commit 17.6 fouls per game, the most in the league, and consequently rank fourth in the league with 77 yellow cards. They’re happy to concede the ball and protect their goal. As a result, they clear the ball 23.4 times per game, the third-most in La Liga. For Real Madrid to beat Girona requires a different set off attacking skills than Eibar. Against Eibar, Madrid will have to beat them by passing through them in midfield and then running at an exposed back line. Girona’s backline gets exposed less, so Madrid will more easily be able to move up the field, but will find it harder to pry their opponent apart to create good shots.
Real Madrid have had a very strange season. The first half of their year went terribly. Cristiano Ronaldo couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, and Los Vikingos tumbled out of the title race. While the team has stabilized, and Ronaldo has started rocketing in the goals, their results haven’t quite rebounded in the same way. Now, with PSG out of the way, the team has a couple of low-key tricky games to demonstrate that they can consistently beat pretty good teams without a problem. If they demonstrate that consistent competency, then they might be ready to make a real run at the Champions League. If they stumble yet again, it’s probably smart to be skeptical.