The atmosphere was weird at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday evening. A Barcelona defeat and an Atleti draw made the match versus Betis even more important for Real Madrid, but the consensus around my section of the stadium was overwhelming: we were going to screw it up.
“We’ve seen this movie too many times”, said my seat neighbour before kick off. I’ve been sitting in the same place for almost 25 years, and even though there’s less and less regulars every passing year -- it’s one of the cheapest tickets, and thus really easy for the club to sell on a more profitable match-to-match basis – I only need to speak to four or five familiar faces to check the atmosphere.
As the match unfolded, our worst expectations started to materialise. The team looked too comfortable, even a bit lazy, as though they were thinking of the upcoming Galatasaray match instead of the team in green and white before them. It’s been a while since we last saw the Casemiro, Kroos, Modric midfield with all of its members in top shape, and that was always the base to get our strikers in scoring positions. On Saturday, only Kroos looked anywhere close his usual standard, while we had to endure the sight of Casemiro taking a free kick, something I won’t be telling my grandsons about indeed.
During halftime, a discussion with another long time socio started among bocadillos – not from 100 Montaditos, in case you were wondering. His point was that Zidane is pulling a Solari, and by that he means that he only trusts a certain starting team and he’s recklessly running them into the ground. He does have a point: unless the French manager believes that Valverde is now a starter and so he rested him to face the Turkish side, he’ll go back to Case, Kroos Modric again on Wednesday, and believe me the trio looked as slow and lacking freshness in the flesh as they did on the screen.
Not only that, but the substitutions arrived late and were far from enough judging by what we were seeing. Zidane did not seem keen on taking any risks against a team playing with five at the back and centreback Marc Bartra as a defensive midfielder, and just replaced winger with winger – Rodrygo and Vinicius – and striker with striker – Benzema and Jovic. In fact, we did expect Marcelo to bring some creativity on the left and Valverde to add some spark in midfield, while seeing Benzema leave the pitch looked so unZidane that we could barely believe our own eyes.
Don’t get me wrong: Zidane may hear a few boos here and there because of his in-game management or one specific decision, but except for a few hotheads who still mourn Mourinho’s exit, no one wants to see him go. Zidane’s limitations are clear: this team will never shock you with any tactical move, and you can tell some of the defensive and defensive situations haven’t been properly prepared. For instance, the high press on Saturday was at times laughable, out of synch and disconnected. But he brings some things out of these players that no other coach will, so most of us have made our peace of mind with it and we keep thinking: “these guy won three Champions League titles in a row”.
That glory blinds us, and probably that’s a mistake, as the level demanded by the fans and their own performance at the stadium have been well below par. It’s not only the team who let themselves go in key LaLiga matches, but also the supporters at the stadium. On Saturday, an absolute must-win, it only became a factor after the 80th minute, way too late for the importance of the match.
Can both team and stadium turn it on for the Champions League? We know that for this competition they do more often than not, but something really needs to change for this season to look promising: a player catching fire, a few wins in a row or a huge result versus a top level rival. Otherwise we’ll continue in the same lukewarm game of “we play at half speed and you root for just ten minutes” of the last 18 months, and we know well that won’t take us far.