Real's primary La Liga aim preparing for PSG in the Champions League
As the winter of 2016 turned to spring and Leicester City edged closer to the Premier League title, Claudio Ranieri repeated the same message: one game at a time. The Italian refused to spin in to the whirlpool of grandiose statements of intent. Survival was the priority. Then, after Leicester passed the 40-point landmark, Ranieri established qualification for the Europa League as the next target.
Only at the end of April, when Leicester were assured of a top-four finish, did Ranieri allow his focus to deviate from the next fixture. "We are in the Champions League, dilly ding, dilly dong. It's fantastic. Terrific," he said, eyes glinting. "And now we go straight away to try to win the title."
In 2018 in Spain, Real Madrid travel to the Mediterranean coast for a second consecutive weekend. After comprehensively beating Valencia at Mestalla, they face the other team in the city -- Levante -- on Saturday evening.
Unlike Ranieri's thrilling Leicester City, Real Madrid are not looking one game ahead despite what their manager might say. Publically, Zinedine Zidane will always stress the importance of the next match. Yet once he has filed out of the press room at Madrid's Valdebebas training ground, he has his binoculars firmly trained on PSG and the Champions League. And with good reason. Madrid are 19 points behind Barcelona in the La Liga table and are eliminated from the Copa del Rey. The Champions League represents the only remaining opportunity to salvage success from a dreary season.
Nonetheless, Madrid's next two La Liga matches -- against Levante and Real Sociedad -- are important. Toni Kroos acknowledged a fortnight ago that Madrid are fighting to finish in the top four. And while they are not as important as the Champions League, they must be viewed through the lens of preparation for PSG and the catastrophe that would ensue if Madrid failed to qualify for Europe's top club competition.
Zidane and Antonio Pintus -- the Italian fitness coach that Zidane recruited when he became the Madrid coach -- have taken advantage of a full week of training to physically prepare for the Ligue 1 leaders. Victories against Deportivo and Valencia have improved Madrid's performances in the second half of matches. Before that, however, the disparity either side of half-time was alarming. If the league table were calculated on first-half results, Madrid would be top of the league, four points clear of Barcelona. Conversely, if the same criteria were applied to second-half results, Madrid would be in 11th place, seven points above the relegation zone.
"We're fine physically," Zidane insisted after the win at Mestalla. Yet it is hard to conceive anyone that fatigue did not play a role in shaping those statistics.
The coach was more willing to acknowledge mental strains. "Sometimes football is in your head," he said, "and that's more difficult." Madrid's performances peaked in August. Los Blancos convincingly won the Spanish and European Super Cups. Although those matches fell within the 2017-18 season, mentally, they must have felt like the final haul of 2016-17. Madrid struggled to maintain intensity after locking their new trophies in the cabinet. That is understandable. Only now do Madrid appear to be emerging from this hibernation, induced by an excess of summer success.
Victory against Levante would give Madrid three consecutive Liga wins for the first time since October, and generate crucial momentum ahead of the Champions League. Speaking on the eve of the trip to Levante, Zidane implicitly stated that the significance of upcoming Liga matches goes beyond the domestic scene. "If you think you can just turn up against PSG, you are wrong," he said. "The players know that. We must use these games before to recover our confidence. We have scored 11 goals in our last two games, and we must continue along this line."
Zidane maintains his absolute faith in the players at his disposal. Madrid are the only club in La Liga to have navigated the January transfer window without any players leaving or joining. Levante, on the other hand, will be looking to external recruits to end a disastrous run of one win in 16 Liga matches. Coach Juan Muniz has added veteran Italian striker Giampaolo Pazzini and Valencia native Ruben Rochina to his squad on loan deals until the end of the season. Yet the most intriguing signing is that of Fahad Al Muwallad -- one of nine Saudi Arabian players to land in Spain as a result of an agreement between La Liga and the Arab nation. It will be a pleasant surprise if he lives up to his ambitious nickname -- "The Saudi Messi" -- and saves The Frogs from relegation straight back to the second division.
In a way, Madrid are following Ranieri's lead by going one game at a time. The difference is that the match Madrid are going for is not their next one. The one that really matters is still 10 days away. But everything that happens between now and then will exist in the context of the 90 minutes of football that begin on Valentine's Day at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Matt McGinn is ESPN FC's Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93