To be the best, you have to beat the best and Real Madrid have come notably short in their big matches this season.
The 3-1 Clasico victory against Barcelona back in October aside, Carlo Ancelotti's men have failed to win in any other of their five matches against teams currently occupying the top four spots in La Liga. Madrid's poor form against Spain's leading sides has cost them the title.
The 2-2 draw against Valencia on Saturday, a result that has all-but handed Barcelona the title, took Madrid's points tally against top-four opposition to a measly four from a possible 18 this season. Los Blancos have dropped 22 points in this campaign so far and 14 of those have come against Barca, Atletico Madrid and Valencia. With a four point gap coming between Luis Enrique's side and Ancelotti's, it is not hard to see where the problems have arisen.
In comparison, the Liga leaders have taken a title-winning 12 points from a possible 15 so far with a potential title-clinching clash at the Vicente Calderon to come next week should the Spanish Football Federation call off the proposed strike. It would be ironic should the Catalans win the league at the Calderon just a year after Atleti enjoyed their title surprise at the Camp Nou. It would also outline Barca's strength against the big teams.
It all looked so different back in October. Madrid were flying with a hugely-convincing 3-1 home win against Barcelona taking Ancelotti's men to the summit and ended the Catalans' unbeaten start to the domestic season. It came in a Spanish record 22-game winning run for Madrid and the victory looked to have the capital club as favourites for the title even though the season was only nine games old.
That victory was to be Madrid's only one against the top four. That defeat was to be Barcelona's sole loss against their rivals at the top.
The outcomes against the top sides have been decisive in the title race. Madrid have thumped sides such as Granada (9-1), Deportivo (8-2), Levante (5-0), Athletic (5-0), Elche (5-1) and Rayo Vallecano (5-1) but those whopping victories only bring about the same three points. The performances and goal gluts may make thrilling reading for the week that follows but the end result is the same.
Even though La Liga has been as close as it has been for years up at the top over the last two seasons there is still a big division between the top sides and the rest, something that will hopefully be resolved by the new centralised audiovisual deal. Most teams arrive at the Santiago Bernabeu looking for damage limitation but those up at the top have arrived with an appetitive for success and a knowledge that Madrid are vulnerable when the game is taken to them.
Intensity has been a buzzword from Ancelotti this season and that is because the Italian has seen his side struggle against intense teams, teams like Valencia and Atletico, and even fifth-placed Sevilla, who were unfortunate to come away with two defeats in league matches in which they pushed Madrid all the way. The three-man midfield has been overrun and the opposition team has played as a collective unit to overcome a Madrid team playing largely as individuals.
Even mid-table Rayo Vallecano gave Madrid a scare at Vallecas last month before finally succumbing to a 2-0 defeat. Paco Jemez's men break the mould in their approach as a ‘smaller' club against the bigger teams in that they played with no fear and with an attacking nature. Eventually, class prevailed against a club with a budget ten times less than that of the ten-times European champions.
Atletico Madrid's success against their more illustrious neighbours has been well documented this season. After the Champions League final loss last season, Diego Simeone's side enjoyed a seven-game unbeaten run against Madrid in all competitions until Javier ‘Chicharito' Hernandez's winner in the Champions League quarter-final. That run hammered home the deficiencies against the top sides.
Valencia mirrored Atleti's intense and physical approach to matches against Madrid, and that allowed them to pick up four points from six against Ancelotti's side. Fortune may not have favoured Madrid on Saturday night, especially not in the first half with the woodwork struck three times, but Valencia were value for points in both matches.
Madrid have been outplayed in the big matches but they have also been unfortunate. There is no hiding from the 4-0 demolition at the Calderon in February but three of the regular back four were missing, as well as the influential Luka Modric and James Rodriguez. It seemed like a freak result rather than a dominant show of power, as proven by the two Champions League contests. Madrid could also take positives from the performance against Barca at the Camp Nou and did when they followed it up with the huge victory against Granada.
Results, however, are the bottom line and Madrid have not got them against the biggest teams this term. League form aside, Atleti also enjoyed Spanish Super Cup success against Los Blancos and knocked Madrid out of the Copa del Rey over two legs. Madrid now find themselves with it all to do against Serie A champions Juventus on Wednesday if they want to keep their hopes of retaining the Champions League alive.
It is a far cry from last season. Although Barca enjoyed the double over Madrid in the league and Atleti also inflicted domestic woe, Madrid came out on top in the Copa del Rey Clasico final, without Cristiano Ronaldo, knocked Atletico out en route and also beat Simeone's side in the biggest one of all in Lisbon last May. There were signs of struggle with a 2-2 home draw against Valencia that dented their league hopes a year ago, however, as well as those league losses to Barca and Atleti that left Ancelotti's men with just a point from 12 against the title rivals.
Recent results mean Ancelotti may not be here to rectify those problems next season but the Italian still has a chance to silence some critics. The Italian champions visit the Bernabeu on Wednesday and if Madrid do manage a big victory against a big team, perhaps Ancelotti's biggest match as Madrid boss awaits in Berlin with a probable date against Barcelona. If he does leave, a big win in the biggest match of them all would be some way to bow out.