For all the talk of Real Madrid’s season being in crisis, Los Blancos are now just three games away from securing a major trophy.
After suffering three consecutive La Liga defeats in October, the third — the 5-1 Clasico loss to Barcelona — proved to be the final straw for Julen Lopetegui, Real have recently started to show signs of life in the post-Cristiano Ronaldo era.
The mini resurgence under Lopetegui’s successor Santiago Solari, which has seen the club climb to within two points of second place Atletico Madrid and reach the Champions League last 16, will face the ultimate test Wednesday as Real travel to the Camp Nou to again face arch-rivals Barca in the first leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal.
Solari, who has overseen a run of seven wins in the last eight games, will be boosted by the news Barca talisman Lionel Messi is unlikely to feature after suffering a thigh injury in Saturday’s draw against Valencia.
The Argentine is set to undergo further tests ahead of Wednesday’s match but reports suggested he trained apart from his teammates on Monday.
“For me there are two predictions: One with Messi, one without Messi,” Marca journalist Juan Castro tells CNN Sport. “Without Messi I think both teams have the same possibility (of reaching the final).
“But with Messi, which isn’t very likely right now, the clear favorite is Barcelona. Both teams arrive at the game with a good feeling, Solari has recovered a lot, (Karim) Benzema has an unbelievable recent record and Vinicius is the new sensation of Real.”
Ronaldo-less Real’s troubles
Benzema’s recent resurgence has seen him score six goals in his last four games, with the Frenchman previously having scored just twice in 13 matches.
It’s that inconsistency in front of goal which has blighted Real this season, as well as a leaky backline, with Benzema being forced to single-handedly shoulder the responsibility of replacing Ronaldo’s 50+ goals every season in Gareth Bale’s continued absence through injury.
The failure to adequately replace the Portuguese star, who joined Juventus in July for a reported $117 million transfer fee, falls squarely at the feet of Real president Florentino Perez, Castro says, despite Lopetegui being made the fall guy.
“Real’s troubles this season haven’t only been due to Ronaldo’s absence, but the main reason is his absence,” Castro says. “Real made some mistakes in their preparation for this season but the biggest one was permitting Cristiano to leave — and for that money.
“The second mistake was not signing a replacement for him, one or two players, and the third one was not creating another figure to supply all these goals in the striker’s position.
“It’s clear than Benzema is replacing him in the sense that he is scoring more goals than any other player, but this is not enough to replace such big figures that Cristiano posted.”
Though it’s clear Real Madrid have made some improvements on the pitch under Solari, now at least looking more likely than not to win each game they play, Castro remains unconvinced on the impact the Argentine coach has had on the team.
“I don’t think it’s a question of names, I think it was a question of time,” Castro explains. “In the sense that if Loptegui had stayed longer, he probably would have won all these matches as Solari has.
“But Lopetegui did not have the right amount of time. I don’t think it was his fault, I think it was a question of time and not a question of what Solari has brought to that team because if you go into the details, Solari has lost a lot of games as well.
“I will say the big detail from Solari’s side was to bring fresh blood to the team like Vinicius and Sergio Reguilon, which is very important because in his place was Marcelo who was untouchable.
“Solari had the courage to put Reguilon instead of Marcelo, so two big decisions and the third one was to play Lucas more than Gareth Bale. I think those three were big decisions were for Solari.”
Champions League? ‘Why not?’
Despite a problematic and largely underwhelming season so far, Castro believes there is a “high chance” Real can win one or more trophies this season.
While any hope of winning just a second La Liga title in seven years has long since evaporated, Real’s know-how in knockout competitions, particularly the Champions League, mean it’s hard to discount them from potentially securing the double.
“La Liga is obviously lost,” Castro says. “The Copa of course, they have only three games ahead to win the title, so of course it’s possible and even more without Messi in the first match.
“And the Champions League, why not? I mean, some of the Champions League titles in Real Madrid’s history have been in the worse moments than this particular season.
“Real Madrid on the big stage really are superior, they have a superior mentality, they grow a lot, so you can never so no to Real.”