Real Madrid emerge as clear title favourites – What might stop them?

Real Madrid stadium
The final LaLiga game before the World Cup sees Real Madrid host Cadiz.

Wednesday’s 1-0 victory over Athletic Club made it seven straight wins for Real Madrid in all competitions and opened up a seven point advantage at the top of LaLiga. Carlo Ancelotti’s side have broken clear of the pack and if their current winning streak goes on, could quickly deny us what was shaping up to potentially be a fascinating title race involving as many as four or more teams.

If there was any doubt, the performances of Spanish clubs in Europe so far this season have confirmed that this is a league of flawed teams and while they’ve been the most impressive of the bunch by some distance, that includes Real Madrid.

They can count on exceptional talents such as Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Karim Benzema, who at their best are simply on a different level to other players in their respective positions across LaLiga. However even in somewhat fortuitous home victories over Sevilla and Athletic Club in recent days, there has been plenty of evidence to suggest Real Madrid are far from the perfect team and despite what is a significant advantage, it’s still premature to view them as the champions-elect.

There are a few areas we can pinpoint as to where it could potentially go wrong for Real Madrid.

Lack of Rotation leading to Burnout Risk

Perhaps the biggest risk for Los Blancos is burnout. Those three key players are all the wrong side of 30 with Modric having recently turned 36. A lack of rotation throughout the season was largely blamed for Real Madrid’s failure to win silverware last season with Zinedine Zidane’s side failing just short in a title race that went to the final weekend and unable to compete with the energy levels of a superior Chelsea in their UEFA Champions League Semi-Final.

Many expected Ancelotti to look at that and opt for a different approach this season but so far he has largely opted against rotating his team, many of whom were also involved in international tournaments during the summer.

Taking into account both league and Champions League fixtures, Real Madrid have three outfield players (Eder Militao, Karim Benzema and David Alaba) who have started 19 of their 20 matches so far this season. Casemiro, despite looking off the pace at times and badly in need of a rest, has started 18. Meanwhile Vini Junior’s appearance against Athletic Club in midweek was his 18th consecutive start.

December sees Real Madrid face off against Inter for the right to win their Champions League group which looks set to offer a significant advantage in the last 16 draw this season. They also have tough trips to the Basque Country this month to face Real Sociedad and Athletic either side of the Madrid derby. With Ancelotti seemingly unwilling to place much faith in his fringe players, opportunities for rotation seem few and far between and it seems obvious that so much football is going to take its toll at some point. Arguably it is already doing so on one or two players.

Irreplaceable Benzema

While having a player as brilliant as Karim Benzema has been over the past couple of years is hardly a problem, there will always be the niggling worry that a significant injury to the Frenchman could do major damage to everything Real Madrid are trying to achieve this season.

In the post-Messi era, Benzema is the league’s standout attacking player and it’s not much of a competition. He has scored 12 and assisted 7 so far this season in LaLiga and no player can better that in either category. While Vini Junior has been a revelation alongside him, it’s questionable whether the young Brazilian would be ready to carry this team over a longer period should Benzema get injured.

The impression is that Ancelotti is going to pick the odd game against weaker domestic opponents to rest his star striker. He has only done it once so far and Real Madrid managed to pull off a 2-1 victory at Elche with Mariano Díaz starting up front. We may see a repeat against Cadiz later this month but it’s a difficult balancing act for the Madrid boss to play and there’s little suggestion that there is a clear plan B in place in the event of the nightmare scenario of a relatively serious injury to Benzema.

Defensive Uncertainty

The main doubts coming into the season about Real Madrid circulated around the defence and how they’d cope with the loss of their long-serving central defensive pairing of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane. Defensive uncertainty was certainly a theme early on in this campaign and it hasn’t completely gone away with some unconvincing moments at the back during their midweek win over Athletic.

With better finishing from the visitors, Real Madrid could easily have lost that game. Ancelotti’s side have conceded more goals in LaLiga this season than anyone else in the top four while both Athletic and newly promoted Espanyol have also let in fewer goals than the side from the capital. The xG data makes even worse reading, suggesting Los Blancos have been fortunate to only concede 15 league goals so far with eight teams having given up fewer xGA.

It’s logical to assume that this back four will improve the more it plays with one another. It is not short on individual quality and David Alaba is arguably an upgrade on a 35 year old Sergio Ramos, certainly one with the kind of injury problems that has limited him to hardly any game-time in 2021.

However, there is a sense that Madrid have largely got away with their defensive deficiencies so far and will sooner or later be punished if they don’t improve in that area of the pitch.

If not Real Madrid, then who?

The good news for Real Madrid is that none of their potential title rivals look convincing enough to suggest they are going to put long winning streaks together, so there is already significant margin for error for the league leaders. Just how much, will largely depend on the outcome of their next two matches which are away to 3rd placed Real Sociedad prior to the Madrid derby at the Santiago Bernabeu against 2nd placed Atleti.

You get the impression Carlo Ancelotti senses an opportunity to build momentum with a consistent lineup and fancies his side have a real chance to put themselves in an almost unassailable position by the end of 2021 if they can win these next two games. There’s some logic in the approach as it would give Real Madrid greater flexibility to rest and rotate around key Champions League games in the new year but it’s not without risk.

While it’s easy to pick holes and highlight potential flaws in this Real Madrid side, there is still the burning question when it comes to this season’s Spanish title race, of whether anyone else is seriously capable of both cutting the gap that Madrid have already built up and ultimately overtaking them.

Barcelona are 13 points back already and while they’ve made a positive start under Xavi, they don’t look in the kind of shape to make any serious title challenge this season. Real Sociedad are starting to falter, as they did at a similar stage last season. There is a sense that this is still too soon for what is still quite a young squad and their failure to score more than once at home all season in any competition also casts serious doubts on their credentials.

Sevilla showed they could go toe to toe with Real Madrid for an hour last weekend and even made their opponents’ star-studded midfield look quite ordinary which is no mean feat. However the Andalusians still lost that game, as they invariably do whenever they travel to the “big three” in LaLiga. It’s still early days but their European performances in particular suggest that if anything they have taken a step backwards this season, rather than the leap forwards which could have thrust them into serious title contention.

That leaves Atletico Madrid as by far the biggest threat to a title charge in the white half of the capital. The defending champions look to have greater depth than their rivals and that could be significant as the season goes on. The addition of Antoine Griezmann has bolstered their firepower but unsettled the mechanics of a title-winning team and a lack of consistency and more defensive issues than we’ve seen in previous years, casts serious doubts on their credentials too.

Put bluntly, Real Madrid should win LaLiga from this position and they can afford to be far from perfect to do so. That’s a sign of the times and not a great reflection on the state of the top end of LaLiga but it would still be a significant achievement for a club that has barely dived into the transfer market since the start of the pandemic early last year, not to mention one that has finished below Atleti in three of the last four seasons.

Spanish football writer
About Mark Sochon 1703 Articles
Mark is a freelance writer based in Madrid, writing mostly about Spanish football. His work has been published by the likes of Guardian Sport & World Soccer. Contact: marksochon (at) hotmail.co.uk

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