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Top of the table with Balon D’ors and Yashin Trophies; but the real tests still await

Real Madrid are top of the league, 1 point away from the UCL knockouts, and Benzema is just getting going. But still a long way to go.

Ballon D’Or Ceremony At Theatre Du Chatelet In Paris Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts — are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.

It is hard to see where Real Madrid’s fate lies by the time the season ends. Ebbs and flows naturally occur in a way that make football tough to predict. Slow starters become champions; teams steamrolling through opponents on massive unbeaten runs can come up empty. Knowing where Carlo Ancelotti’s men, currently among the most loveable conglomerate of two-way talented players in club history, lie in the pack by June, is an unknown.

But judging on last season’s trophies and this season’s results until now, things should be cherished regardless. This is a special team. It’s not the best team of all nor will it be shortlisted among the greatest sides ever, but there is a unanimous backing from fans behind this squadron. The team is easy to root for. Even the superstar, Karim Benzema, leads by example, and there was something wholesome about Zinedine Zidane presenting the Balon D’or to Karim — a player who long waited his turn while watching his teammates take home individual prize after individual prize for over a decade.

And back to work. As Benzema himself stated upon receiving the award, there is little time to celebrate because the energy needs to be focused on beating Elche and defending crowns.

“But, now we’re thinking ahead, to the next Ballon d’Or,” Ancelotti said in today’s pre-game press conference for the Elche game. “Benzema can start working on the next one tomorrow.”

Thinking about what’s next without getting too lost in the moment is a superpower that this team has. An underrated part of Real Madrid’s success has been their ability to stay grounded: not to get too high nor too low in moments. That in itself, is something people in general should do more of. It’s not to stay that footballers and teams shouldn’t celebrate when appropriate, but it’s knowing how to re-calibrate and focus that has made Real Madrid anchored and successful.

When Fede Valverde scored Real Madrid’s second goal in El Clasico, Ancelotti tempered celebrations on the bench, knowing how much football was left to be played. When Real Madrid were on the brink of elimination in last year’s Champions League, they didn’t feel sorry for themselves and lose hope — fully understanding that they still had control of their destiny.

Some may interpret this woo-woo stuff as nonsense, but the mental-wrestle in big moments is at least half the battle.

Where Real Madrid’s La Liga title defense can be won or lost, ironically, is not in these big games they tend to execute well in; but the upcoming games against Elche, and later against Girona at the end of the month.

“We need to focus a little more on the mental concentration for this game,” Ancelotti said of tomorrow’s clash against Elche. “It’s easier to be focused for big games, but it can be harder after a big game like El Clásico. We know this and are aware that this game has three points, just like Sunday’s game did.”

Elche, last place in La Liga, are a team that took two points off of Real Madrid last season at the Bernabeu, and another two points off of Zidane’s men in the 2020 title race. They are, truly, doing really poorly. Despite slightly over-performing their xG and ‘only’ conceding 21 goals from their xGA of 25, they sit dead last with zero wins, a hair away from a toothless Cadiz side above them who can barely enter the opponents’ half. But that Elche should be comfortably be beaten is not the debate — it’s that Elche are the exact opponent Real Madrid need to focus on beating and have, in the past, been the type of challenger the team hasn’t been motivated to play against.

In some ways, the Clasico was just another test of Real Madrid’s mental fortitude in big games they like to show up in. The real tests are still yet to arrive: Trips to face hard-working La Liga minnows after the high of winning El Clasico and sweeping home a Balon D’or and Yashin Trophy, an unforgiving and gruelling calendar, and unforeseen roadblocks that will be more clear to the eye after the World Cup.

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