Real Madrid have reason for optimism following Sevilla thrashing
On Friday, Real Madrid were out of the Copa del Rey after an embarrassing administrative mistake. They were twelve points behind Barcelona and four behind Atletico Madrid in La Liga, and unable to put in solid away performances against top six rivals -- losses to Villarreal, Sevilla, a draw against Atletico and only a victory against Celta to celebrate -- while Barcelona awaited in two weeks.
All the data pointed towards a terrible year for Real Madrid in their home endeavours.
However, just when the domestic season couldn't look any worse, the unexpected happened. In an eventful weekend, Barcelona and Atletico struggled in below-par away displays, and Real Madrid rose to the occasion.
The Madridistas won their home match against Sevilla in convincing fashion and recovered some of the good vibrations they so sorely missed. They can now face the final third of the season with at least a hint of optimism.
Except for the first five minutes of the match, during which Sevilla found Keylor Navas' box with excessive ease, Zinedine Zidane's team showed a level of both determination and offensive flair that had been lacking in some of the previous matches.
The comeback of the BBC unit -- Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo -- reminded many of how intense, fast and direct this squad can play. Benzema's impressive all-around performance and Bale's constant threat on the wing kept the Sevilla defenders guessing for most of the evening, and generated a sequence of chances Real should have done better to finish off.
The fact that Bale is nearing his best shape changes the way this Real Madrid plays. When the Wales international looks as sharp as he did on Sunday, the squad's offense leans towards the side where he's at -- to the right in Sunday's case. Against Sevilla, with the help of Luka Modric's passing and Danilo's smart movements, Bale received the ball in space so often that even a competent full-back such as Benoit Tremoulinas appeared overwhelmed by Bale's ubiquity.
On the left, not even Marcelo's usual marauding forward created the same effect as Bale, especially since it allows Cristiano Ronaldo to move more centrally to link up with Benzema, his preferred partner.
Bale's recovery was not the only piece of good news for Zidane on Sunday. Even though Real Madrid dominated proceedings for most of the match, the fact that Sevilla did not score in any of their four fantastic opportunities can only be explained by Navas' current form. In less than a season as a starter, the Costa Rican has become an icon at the Santiago Bernabeu, and his exhibition of reflexes and alertness on Sunday showed why.
Casemiro, although still showing too much of his youthful exuberance, proved that he can take care of things on the defensive end, allowing Modric and Kroos to move forward more often.
The Brazilian should measure his excessive physicality sometimes, a point of concern less than two weeks away from his team's visit to the Camp Nou. If he does not control his tackling, he could end up in the dressing room well before the final whistle in Barcelona.
Benzema, who inspired the most creative offensive moves of the evening, also looks in enviable shape, and maintains a scoring touch that has not deserted him since the season began.
At least on paper, Zidane's squad shows reasons for a cautious optimism before their trip to Barcelona. But let's not forget that, only a couple of days ago, the thought of another thrashing at the Camp Nou was omnipresent in the minds of most Madridistas.
In fact, Sevilla's defeat shouldn't surprise anyone. The Sevillistas had not won away in La Liga all season, while Real Madrid had beaten them in their last eight visits to the Bernabeu. Even if their victory was convincing, Real Madrid have been solid at home. It's their away record and performances that haven't been as good, and a trip to Barcelona is obviously the toughest one of the season.
The wave of optimism, apparent in the Madrid media on Monday, is based on the recovery of a few key players, who have worked to get back to their top form. However, given the precedents, no one can guarantee that Bale, Benzema or even the similarly injury-prone Luka Modric can stay healthy for two weeks and claim their spot at the Camp Nou.
Ten points behind Barcelona with eight matches to go, not even a win would restore Real Madrid back into the title race, especially taking into account the Azulgranas' final seven matches of the season. Only one of their opponents currently sit in the table's top 10 -- Deportivo de La Coruna, precisely at 10 -- while five are far from relegation trouble, so they will probably be playing for nothing when they face Barcelona.
That said, a positive performance and of course a good result at the Camp Nou could get the squad into the right mood to face the extremely challenging quarterfinal round of the Champions League against Wolfsburg. A positive result in Barcelona could become the beginning of an unexpected end to a season that not that long ago looked doomed.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.