Part of the reason attendances at the Bernabéu are down this season is simple: Real Madrid are not very good
Santi Solari was right, but he got it so very wrong. First they attacked him for what he said, then they attacked him for what he did. Others, meanwhile, just gave up and walked away, leaving him standing where Real Madrid managers so often stand: alone. On Saturday, two days after his team had been held 2-2 at Villarreal on their return from the winter break and winning the Club World Cup, the hounds released, Solari insisted that draws shouldn’t be “underestimated”; as if to prove the point, a prisoner of his words, the next day they were beaten 2-0 by Real Sociedad at the Bernabéu, the league seeming to slip out of sight again on the first weekend of 2019 – 20 games ahead of time.
The league and some of the fans too: there weren’t that many of them anyway – at 53,412, this was Madrid’s second worst attendance in a season in which they’re already averaging 6,000 fewer than last year – and when Rubén Pardo headed in a second for Real Sociedad, finally making the game safe, lots of those who were there headed for the exit. Some whistled, some waved hankies, a few even demanded resignations, but most departed in silence, resigned to it all, symbolic somehow. Others might, but they weren’t about to accept this.
Solari’s remark was not entirely irrational, and he followed it up on Sunday by insisting the only people who underestimate opponents are “those who have never played the game”, but it was the kind of thing you don’t say and soon everyone was wading in. Marca had responded to the manager’s words by splashing a reminder across its front page: “Solari, you coach Real Madrid!” The problem is he coaches this Madrid in this league, where only Barcelona have won more than half their games; a Madrid who demonstrated a draw shouldn’t be underestimated by going one worse, leaving Marca to follow up with a headline that runs: “The Bernabéu empties for a reason.”
And while there is more to it, part of the reason is simple: Real Madrid are not very good.
Real Sociedad arrived at the Bernabéu, where they hadn’t won for 15 years, in 15th place, three points off the relegation zone, and they had just sacked their manager. Yet within three minutes, they were a goal up. It began badly and finished worse.
The fastest ever penalty given against Madrid at home was put away by Willian José. In a game that became wild and wide open, that could have finished 4-4 or just about any scoreline in between, Madrid had two penalty shouts of their own – the first for Sergio Ramos, the second for Vinicius at 0-1. The Brazilian was brought down by Gero Rulli, although la Real’s goalkeeper did seem to get a slight touch on the ball and the referee, José Luis Munuera Montero waved play on. That wasn’t so strange; what was strange was that VAR didn’t intervene. “We don’t understand what it’s for,” said Emilio Butragueno, who usually doesn’t say anything. “If it doesn’t get used when it’s so evident, it loses all meaning,” Solari said. “A scandal,” Ramos called it. “I’m sure it’s not pre-meditated, but it does make you think,” he added.
There are other, more important things to think about, though. Results had improved under Solari, overtaking Julen Lopetegui in terms of points gained, but while they won, they didn’t win many over. On one level, at least, that’s not surprising. He arrived 10 weeks into the season, a temporary coach formally made permanent a fortnight later yet never really backed as a fixture, always likely to be the weakest link. While it is forgotten amid their European success, he also inherited a team that finished third last season, 17points behind Barcelona. There was a reason Zinedine Zidane left. Lots of them, in fact. And Cristiano Ronaldo departed soon after. Lopetegui lasted 138 days.
Feeling the finger of blame pointing his way after Villarreal, Solari pointed out that he’d taken over the team in ninth, and led them to fourth, recovering slowly. But deeply underwhelming victories, 1-0 against Rayo, 1-0 at Huesca, 2-0 over Valencia, 4-2 at Celta, and 2-0 against Valladolid, were not exactly conclusive evidence of a significant improvement. They’d been taken apart by Eibar, defeated 3-0. And they came back and drew 2-2 at Villarreal. Now they’d been defeated by Real Sociedad, the same day he was told a draw was not acceptable. Not here. And not at Villarreal. The week that should have been about Sevilla and Atlético, became about Madrid, and for all the wrong reasons. Again.
Take a look at that list again, then at the table: that’s eight games against the teams in 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 17th, 19th and 20th. Europe wasn’t their elixir either, not yet. CSKA Moscow came and beat them 3-0. Madrid are not even fourth any more. After a weekend in which only two of the top seven won – Barcelona at Getafe and Alavés against Valencia – and in which Sevilla and Atlético played out the kind of draw that is acceptable, a match Diego Simeone described as “exciting, hard and lovely”, Madrid are now fifth. And while Solari took over seven points off the top, the gap is now 10. Ten from Barcelona, five from Atlético, three from Sevilla and one from Alavés. They’re closer to Valladolid than they are to the top.
Leo Messi and Luis Suárez scored in a tough 2-1 victory over Getafe, the kind the Uruguayan said “gives you half a league”, and in which they were fortunate that Getafe’s opening “goal” was ruled out. They’ve now scored more between them than Madrid, who haven’t reached this stage of the season with so few goals for a quarter of a century. While Ronaldo had only scored two league goals by Christmas last season, it’s natural to see a huge gap where he once stood. They have 26 goals so far; in his nine seasons there, the average at this stage was almost 50. On Saturday, with Bale, Mariano and Asensio injured, there was little on the bench and there are gaps in the stands, too: the Bernabéu is big, true, but it’s yet to fill. And if there’s been bad luck and injuries, it’s hard to recall a really good performance this season, Roma apart. Madrid were fantastic that night, but it was fleeting.
So, while the penalty naturally dominated the debate, it didn’t hide Madrid’s problems, not least because they’re not new. “Adrift”, “depressed”, “rock bottom”, ran some of the headlines. “Madrid stand there exposed, in a tanga,” wrote El País, “reality is the scourge of hope.” Ramos insisted: “My legs hurt from running so much,” but Madrid are not right. Only Vinicius offered hope and in the second half it was startling how easily Real Sociedad, led by Mikel Merino, walked through them.
“Almost every game, the other team scores and we don’t score many,” Luka Modric said. “That’s our problem, but not our only one. It’s repeated almost every game. We have to sit down, get together and talk, to ask what is happening to us, why things like this happen. We can’t always blame the manager. We lack goals. We lacked unity on the pitch. We have to improve and I include myself – I’m here to accept responsibility. We were 0-1 down in three minutes and we can’t always do this. We can’t have a cock-up every game.”
• Jesús Navas is 33, it says here. But that can’t be right, can it? “He’s like a kid who’s just starting out, a breath of fresh air,” Sevilla coach Pablo Machín said. “Exceptional,” Simeone called him. So exceptional that Atlético changed formations – twice, in fact – to try to stop him as first and second met at the Sánchez Pizjuán. Navas tore into Atlético, like a “whirlwind”, Diario de Sevilla said. “They literally couldn’t get him down off his bike,” the paper added. Navas was unstoppable in a first half in which Sevilla dominated and should have been more than 1-0 up when Antoine Griezmann curled in a wonderful free-kick. Simeone sent Koke over to help Saúl and Atlético got control in the second half – although Navas still managed to leave both of them trailing with a nutmeg and yet another burst of acceleration – and it finished 1-1, with both goalkeepers impressing hugely. “They’re extraordinarily good,” Simeone said. And he wasn’t wrong, an ovation ringing round at the end.
• “Danger here,” one Alavés player said. “We’re going to be dancing!” another added. It was 90 minutes before kick-off and the pitch at Mendizorroza was half frozen. Marcelino, the Valencia manager complained, but Alavés got on with it and so did Mendizorroza, rocking as ever. One down thanks to a lovely Dani Parejo free-kick which shouldn’t have been, they came back to win 2-1. And they did it with a sense of security that was striking too. This is the best first half to a season in their entire first division history – and with a game to spare. They haven’t been beaten at home for a year. It’s no fluke.
• Huesca won at home for the first time ever in primera – and against Betis too. It was about time, in truth: they have been much better than their position suggests.
• Messi: fox in the box. Luis Suárez: volley maestro. Barcelona: refusing to say it’s over, but that’s a big step taken.