Real Madrid must eliminate mental errors as PSG clash approaches
Last week, when Real Madrid experienced a brief respite from crisis talk following wins over Deportivo and Valencia, reports surfaced of their plans in the build-up to the Paris Saint-Germain game. It would be a mini preseason, designed by fitness coach Antonio Pintus and his staff with a focus on the physical side of Real's game. There would also be work done on the psychological aspect of the game as they try to build confidence and re-install consistency.
After all, at this point of the season with 38 games played, the only thing consistent about Real Madrid is their inconsistency.
With two wins in a week and Isco and Sergio Ramos returning from injury along with the continued health of Gareth Bale, the conditions for a blossoming sense of confidence were in place heading into Saturday's game with Levante. All Real Madrid needed to do was put their new-found, no-nonsense approach into action in an effort to prove that they had the credentials to win even if it wasn't always pretty. And that's where it got complicated.
Emilio Butragueno, the club's director and the man tasked with most of the pre- and post-match interviews, said Real Madrid's results and inability to close out games was "curious" after Levante twice pulled level on Saturday during their 2-2 draw. Sergio Ramos added: "If we knew what the problem was, we would have solved it by now."
This ethereal issue of mental mistakes is a hard one to put your finger on and often an even more difficult one to fix. Zinedine Zidane, too, is growing weary of his side's defensive errors. "We can avoid the second goal," he said in relation to Levante's second equaliser. "It bothers me because we work on it. We know that the opponent can do damage on the counter-attack. They had four chances and scored two goals."
"This year," he said before hesitating over what to say next, "this year... this year has been complicated."
The complications are coming from late collapses. Real Madrid have dropped points in 10 league games this season. In four of those games, their opponents scored after the 80th minute with the game still hanging in the balance, including equalisers in the 82nd and 89th minutes and winners in the 94th and 87th. There were also two late equalisers in home Copa del Rey games to third-tier outfit Fuenlabrada and second division Numancia that add to the cause for concern.
Zidane's demeanour at press conferences and in interviews after games has been straight out of a media manual on how to say as little as possible while remaining engaged and courteous. However, his side's cognitive lapses are starting to weigh him down. He knows his side have the quality if they could just eliminate the blunders that are causing them to drop points as crisis talk never seems too far away from their door.
After Real Madrid beat Valencia in the league with the kind of performance that would have made last year's team gush with pride, Zidane made the mental side of the game the nucleus of his post-match comments.
"Sometimes, football is in your head," said Zidane after their win at Mestalla. He knew that it was the same Real Madrid that had been sent out countless times before. It's why he also made the point of sticking with the players he has in his squad over the winter when transfer speculation suggested they would buy players for all areas of the field.
However, Real Madrid's game management continues to be a source of frustration and Ramos' diagnosis of the situation after the Levante collapse fit the symptoms perfectly. "When you do the most complicated thing, which is come back to lead, you can't draw with five minutes to go. You have to draw on experience, try to kill time."
The ironic thing is that Real Madrid built a dynasty and record-breaking side that won consecutive Champions Leagues by preying on other side's mental lapses and weaknesses. They could play you off the park or beat you in a war of attrition, and it didn't bother them as to how they did it.
If they can fixate on one thing before the PSG game, it should be their attempts to rediscover the ability to win matchesby any means necessary and closing up shop when the finish line appears. Zidane knows it, PSG know it and most importantly, his Real Madrid players know it. If they can't eliminate those mental errors and game-management issues, however, it could very well mean a heavy defeat on Valentine's Day.
Robbie is based in Madrid and is one of ESPN FC's Real Madrid bloggers. Twitter: @robbiejdunne