Everybody knows that the mark of a title winning side is the ability to win the little games. Even winning El Clasico twice in a season won’t translate into silverware unless you can get psyched up for a Sunday night in San Sebastian or a freezing weekday evening at the Estadio Balaidos.
In a packed Bernabeu, Madrid will always be a terrifying proposition, but with nothing to lose and a passionate home crowd, the top flight’s minnows can take a bite out of Jose Mourinho’s superstars.
Los Blancos’ aura of away invincibility was shattered early in the campaign. A 2-1 defeat at Getafe in Week 2 showed La Liga’s lesser lights that they could compete against Madrid on their soil. Since then, the capital club have been beaten four times in all competitions on their travels and been made to sweat for their positive results.
After Wednesday’s Copa del Rey reverse at Celta Vigo, Alvaro Arbeloa admitted away form was a concern and that it was ‘time to be critical of ourselves’. With a superhuman Barcelona now 11 points ahead and running away with the title, it may be that the Merengues already have too much to do to entertain hopes of domestic glory, but Champions League success will depend on exorcising their demons.
Their road sickness has two facets – tactical and mental. Defensively, Madrid’s weak spot is all too visible at present. A long-term injury to Marcelo and sporadic problems for Fabio Coentrao have seen the left side exposed. The Real Madrid Castilla stand-in Nacho Fernandez is still rough around the edges while Michael Essien is far from at home in the role, lacking the pace or nous to perform both attacking and defensive responsibilities.
Given his contribution offensively, it would seem sacrilegious to ask Cristiano Ronaldo to track back and do his share of the dirty work, but without CR7’s assistance, the gap between the defence and midfield on the left side is gaping and inviting. While at home Madrid are able to enjoy enough possession to hide this chink in their armour, on their travels opponents are more willing and able to attack their flank.
On a less tangible level, there seems to be a problem with motivation. While talk of Mourinho having a ‘Third Season Syndrome’, causing him to lose interest in a job during his third campaign, may be a slight simplification, it is clear that the Coach’s relationship with his current employers is strained. It looks unlikely that he will remain at the Bernabeu past this summer and the uncertainty seems to be projecting onto his players, especially away from home when the psychological role of the tactician is greater.
The focus just isn’t there and that is aptly demonstrated by Madrid’s haemorrhaging of goals from set pieces. To let in 11 goals that way is not acceptable and shows a lack of concentration on the basics. It also seems to suggest the absence of the meticulous eye for detail that is Mourinho’s trademark.
The former Chelsea boss knows that the only realistic chance of silencing his critics lies with the Champions League and while he won’t be ready to surrender La Liga, the fact it is a reduced priority seems to have filtered through to the players.
A master of media mind games and a shameless lover of the biggest stages, there have always been question marks over Jose’s ability to get a side up for the gritty provincial tussles.
Over the last few weeks these doubts have resurfaced with a vengeance. If Mourinho looked like he didn’t want to be in Vigo on a Wednesday night, it’s probably because he didn’t, but it’s his job to keep focus on the task at hand. If he wants to sort out Real’s road trip troubles he will need to look at his defence, his tactics, the dressing room mentality but, just as crucially, he will need a healthy dose of introspection.