Real Madrid's woes: Where have the UCL champions gone wrong?
Despite Thursday's public backing of Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti from club president Florentino Perez, the Italian's future is hanging by a thread after a number of poor performances from Los Blancos in recent games.
Although he won last season's Champions League, it is not clear whether Perez truly believes Ancelotti is the right man to take the club forward, and, after a run of 22 consecutive victories lasted all the way to the end of last year and into the Club World Cup, things have gone pear-shaped following the winter break.
Although Perez claimed the manager will remain at the club "whatever happens" this season, Ancelotti's future beyond that may yet lie away from the Spanish capital if he can't turn around form that has seen them fall behind Barcelona at the top of La Liga after drawing 1-1 with Villarreal, losing 1-0 to Athletic Bilbao and then almost capitulating in the Champions League with a 4-3 defeat to Schalke that saw them scrape through 5-4 on aggregate.
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So where has it all gone wrong for the European champions?
It seems that whenever the cameras are on veteran goalkeeper Iker Casillas nowadays, he is found wanting. The Spain international has had a relatively steady season in general but his display on Tuesday night against Schalke was reminiscent of a dismal 2014 World Cup cameo that ended unceremoniously after three games and raised serious questions about his ability. Madrid's icon was arguably at fault for the first two goals in midweek and did not even see teenager Leroy Sane's third for Schalke until it had flown into the back of the net.
It seemed for all the world that following the departure of Diego Lopez to AC Milan, summer signing Keylor Navas would step in to the No. 1 spot in Madrid, but the Costa Rican has played just twice in La Liga. This after scooping the goalkeeper of the year award for his remarkable season at Levante in 2013-14 -- as well as the highest rating of any shot-stopper in Europe's top five leagues from WhoScored.com (7.23) -- and having boasted the best save success rate of any keeper in La Liga (76.6 percent). Casillas' current figure this season stands at a respectable 70.7 percent, but it is surely time Navas was brought into the fold.
The injury sustained by defender Sergio Ramos in last month's victory over his former club Sevilla has certainly had an adverse effect on Madrid's defensive solidity. That much was immediately apparent as they suffered a humiliating 4-0 defeat in their very next game against Atletico, and the four goals shipped against Schalke mean that Madrid have conceded 10 goals in the seven matches without their first-choice centre-back.
Although their most recent defensive collapse has come in in Europe, the absence of Ramos was always likely to provide a problem for Ancelotti in the league despite having the likes of Pepe and Raphael Varane in reserve. Madrid have lost a greater proportion of their league matches without the Spaniard under the current regime, suffering defeat in 21.4 percent of the matches that Ramos has missed, compared to 14 percent when he has been in the starting XI. His imminent return will be key.
One man who did make his comeback from the bench in the week was Luka Modric, and his return will surely give the side a lift. The Croatian was in superb form at the start of the campaign, earning a WhoScored rating of 7.54 -- his highest since a move to the Bernabeu from Tottenham in 2012 -- from his first 10 league appearances before injury. The players who have filled in alongside Toni Kroos since -- Asier Illarramendi (6.55 La Liga rating), Lucas Silva (6.42) and Sami Khedira (6.30) -- have not been anywhere near Modric's standard.
It has meant that the demands on the aforementioned Kroos have been pretty intense -- a player who played every single minute of Germany's successful World Cup campaign, including two lots of extra-time, and is attempting to adapt to a new league and style of football with very little respite. Indeed, across the league and Champions League this season the 25-year-old has played 2,871 of a possible 3,060 minutes (94 percent), so he could be forgiven for feeling the effects of a little fatigue.
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There's no getting past the fact that Real Madrid's strikeforce are some way off of their fearsome best. While Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema were on the scoresheet on Tuesday, both have gone off the boil of late having been in quite remarkable form ahead of the winter break. Benzema had a direct hand in at least one goal in 14 of his last 15 league and Champions League appearances of 2014, but since the turn of the year he's done so in just six of 15 in all competitions. Meanwhile Ronaldo's goals-per-game ratio in the league and Champions League stood at 1.5 before the break and at 0.7 since.
The biggest drop-off in performance, however, has been that of Gareth Bale, who has been the victim of some ridicule from the fans and Spanish press in turn. The Welshman has failed to have a hand in a goal in any of his last eight appearances in all competitions, despite completing 90 minutes in each.
With three successive WhoScored.com ratings lower than a seven, it seems that Bale could either do with a rest or some added motivation, despite Ancelotti stating that fielding the Benzema-Bale-Cristiano combination is "not up for negotiation."
A return to winning ways against Levante this weekend is a must, as a trip to Camp Nou for the clasico awaits thereafter. Failure to win either of those matches could see both Perez's patience and faith tested once more.