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Taking Stock of Real Madrid's Dangling Hopes

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As things kicked off in August last year, neither Florentino Pérez, nor Carlo Ancelotti, nor any of the players would have looked favourably at the position Real Madrid finds itself in at this time of the season. Knocked out of the Copa del Rey by the same Atlético Madrid Ancelotti's men have failed to register a single victory against in 6 attempts -- the same team the European Champions are scheduled to face in the quarter-finals of the only active competition that remains in their hands. The impossible made even more so. On the league front, the prospects aren't much brighter as FC Barcelona dealt a "death blow" (whether or not the Blaugrana can take advantage remains to be seen) to the title chances of its eternal rival. The clásico in many ways a microcosm of the season to date -- a vibrant Real Madrid start with Los Merengues excellently controlling the match and establishing dominance only to severely wither and fall in the second half. Like a punctured balloon: no matter how much it's inflated, how big it gets, how much air you put in it, it will always fall victim to its compromised structural integrity.

To be clear, the team isn't broken but it certainly feels broken. The team here is not a reference to Real Madrid's playing squad only; it is representative of the organizational approach to the season from the development of sporting strategy to implementation and execution. The balloon so to speak has not shrunk and any holes can still be patched up but there is a problem. Being within a goal of Champions League elimination against Schalke 04 (after coming into the Santiago Bernabéu with a 2 goal away leg lead) is a problem. Conceding 4 goals without answer in the sixth derbi madrileño of the season in such a hopeless fashion is a problem. The manager repeatedly remarking that the team lacks intensity and mental fortitude is a problem. While none of these taken in isolation are conclusively indicative of very much and can be explained away by luck or circumstance -- they, similar to symptoms of an ailment, when examined together may reveal an underlying issue. And even were one to contend that each of the afore mentioned worrisome highlights are independent and can be attributed to luck or circumstance, we would have to wonder why mechanisms weren't put in place to shield the team from these uncontrollable factors.

The culprits, as far as the media is concerned, for this season's troubles are clear. Ancelotti's dogmatism and league management have been endlessly criticized. Gareth Bale's apparently rigid and mismatched abilities compounded by inconsistency and heavy forms dips have fatally burdened the team. The club president's supposed interference with transfer activity did not optimally set up the squad for sustained competitiveness in the event of injury layoffs. Of course, these are gross exaggerations and the media work off of certain preset story lines but where there's smoke... It would be irresponsible to  hold Ancelotti, Bale, and/or Pérez wholly accountable for the problems this season but it'd be just as irresponsible to ignore the role they've played in this matter within the greater context of the team. Ancelotti should show greater flexibility in experimenting with alternative tactics that are reflective of active adaptability. Bale should improve his level of play -- not only in his end game but his overall performance -- as he has proved how well he can perform on the right wing. Pérez should (although there is no proof he doesn't) seek the counsel of his coaching staff during the decision-making process behind player transfers.

However, if all of the above did happen, there is still no guarantee that Real Madrid wouldn't have been knocked out of the Copa, "almost" knocked out of Europe, and left behind in the league. That's because -- beyond the irreversible truth that hard as a team may try, there is simply no hedging against the brutal unpredictable consequences of uncontrollable factors (luck, circumstance) -- improvements in other critical areas of the team would also be needed. Examples would be: composure in the defensive line, midfield attacking flow, conversion/finishing quality, tactical discipline (assumptive), and psychological resilience (assumptive).

If there was a choice in the matter, this is not where Real Madrid would want to be at this moment. It is important to acknowledge that there have been failures this season to be able to fully understand where the team went wrong and how things could have been done differently in order to achieve better results. That being said, the season is ongoing and the league race (while far from ideal) is not over. The team is still in the Champions League and they have a great opportunity to reverse the recent trend against their city neighbors and qualify for the semi-finals. Luka Modrić is playing as well as could have been expected after coming back from injury, Sergio Ramos did not show physical discomfort in his latest performance, and James Rodríguez's return is imminent. As overwhelmingly difficult as winning the Champions League may seem, making la Undécima a reality would be a landmark achievement in football history. That alone would make this season a remarkable one but as previously stated, the league cannot be discounted and the remaining matches must be managed professionally. The team is down and of that there is no dispute. They're not out however, and that is the most important thing.