Don't laugh, but Real Madrid could still win La Liga, Champions League this season
Gareth Bale's exceptionally elegant and three-point-winning goal for Real Madrid on Sunday was notable for a number of reasons.
You knew that it left him just five more strikes short of a century of goals for Los Blancos... right? No, probably not. Unless you're president of the Gareth Bale appreciation society or his occasionally interventionist agent, then you're probably of the opinion that he never contributes, he's permanently in a scoring drought, he's "no Cristiano, mate!" and that there's very little to recommend his spell in Spain.
That's the nonsensical image you'll be sold if you listen to the false-friend Spanish media: he's a darling when he wins a trophy with a a world-class goal but a brutally easy target when things are bumpy. The truth is far more positive and far more nuanced.
To be within five of 100 goals for Madrid given Bale's injury record, the fact that he's very obviously not a "true" striker and that much of his time in a white shirt has been shared with one of the most goal-hungry, prolific footballers of all time is pretty remarkable.
So is the regularity with which he produces those goals in finals: Copa del Rey, Champions League, World Club Cup.
So is the standard of goal he regularly produces. Pick your favourite: What about the crucial goal in the Kiev Champions League win last season? Or the literally extraordinary goal he scored to win the Copa Del Rey final of 2014, during which he seemed to run off the pitch, out of the stadium, back in via a turnstile and still out-sprint Marc Bartra to poke the ball home for Copa glory to Madrid and misery for Barca.
What about last season's thunder-strike in Dortmund? Utterly brilliant. So good is the list of his top five goals for Madrid that the wonderfully controlled and "I-can-do-this-with-my-eyes-closed" winner at Huesca last weekend doesn't come close.
What was also notable about the Welshman's volleyed goal was that Madrid couldn't add to it. That was partly because Huesca's Serbian goalkeeper, Alex Jokanovic, made a couple of fine saves from Bale, and produced another that was world-class. Oscar winning.
We've learned, I think, that Madrid's key flaw in La Liga is their goals-against tally. Although to judge by the Spanish media's obsession with whether or not Bale scores sufficiently, and is or isn't a fit and proper replacement for a phenomenon, you'd never know that. While Barcelona have dominated domestically, they have, without exception, conceded fewer goals than Los Blancos.
Since Pep Guardiola took over in 2008-09, Barcelona have conceded, aggregated, 91 fewer goals than their historic rivals. Think about that number for a second. It's extraordinary.
We've also learned, I believe, that Santi Solari has made a stream of very good decisions since taking over, that he's changed the training and fitness regime (subtly but successfully) and that Madrid are genuinely in contention for the first treble in their history.
Is that the sound of you spluttering? I know, I know. It sounds utterly improbable right? Risible, even? Well here's the theory.
Right now, Real aren't as far behind the league leaders as they were last season at the same stage. The damage of their atrocious few months since the summer hasn't yet torpedoed them below the water-line. They shouldn't, really, be in shape to win a fourth consecutive Champions League for a host of reasons: no club has ever done it, they've lost Ronaldo's utterly extraordinary appetite for the big moments that must turn your way if you're to make history, and their goals-against tally is significantly worse than at this stage last season.
But they won their group, they've played their best football of the season, by far, on European nights and... this is Madrid we are talking about. They win this competition with the same facility as all the rest of us breathe or eat.
As for La Liga? Well, it also looks odds against but the key factor here is that no team has yet made a case that they are irrevocable favourites. Barcelona paint as champions again: that's obvious. But have they looked vulnerable? Yes.
Are Barcelona far more interested in winning the Champions League? Yes. And who knows what the season holds for their key players in terms of form and fitness. My only point here is that if you were Santi Solari, five points behind and looking at an Atleti side that stutters to victory, won't have Diego Costa back in the team till spring and won't have the best of the Brazil-born striker until who knows when, then you'd be saying to yourself, "We can win this title."
Sorry Sevilla, it's fun while you're up there playing this way, but the title, as you very well know, is a bridge too far.
As for La Copa? Well, Madrid haven't genuinely valued it for a couple of seasons -- since they got accustomed to winning it again, basically -- but with a fair wind and a modicum of effort, it's far from out of the question. In fact, if I were Solari, keen to make an impact, hopeful of fending off Jose Mourinho and Joachim Low who, in my view, are queuing up for the Madrid job in the summer, then perhaps you target the cup and use big efforts to win it so that your CV looks groovy come May. You may disagree with me, but you also know that's not an outrageous proposition.
Anyhow, the fact is that for any of this to even become a possibility, Madrid need to get addicted to what happened at Huesca.
There, on Sunday afternoon, Madrid kept a clean sheet. It's true that nobody knows exactly how, but they did. Poor old Gonzalo Melero, once a junior Madrid player under the tutelage of Zinedine Zidane, missed an unmissable chance to head home the equaliser and, if I don't miss my guess, he'll still be tearing out his hair and moaning "How oh how did I screw that up?"
So, here's the point about that 1-0 win and the Gareth Bale masterpiece goal. This is the first winter transfer market in which a club like Real Madrid can, if they choose, make a specific player purchase to solve their very obvious problems -- namely, a glaring tendency to concede too many and a minor problem with adding crucial goals -- and then use that player in the Champions League knockout rounds. For that reason, if I were one of the clubs that should have qualified through the group stage but hasn't (pick whichever one takes your fancy) and that now stands to miss out on €30 or €40 million as a result, I'd be very, very concerned about getting a phone call from Madrid's vice president Jose Angel Sanchez asking for a price on my top-quality centre-back or striker.
And just think how tempting it might be for a footballer offered the chance to go to Madrid in January and be four really good performances (across eight matches) away from winning the Champions League.
Madrid -- now well-coached, fitter, boasting more urgent athleticism via Marcos Llorente, Sergio Reguilon, Federico Valverde and Dani Ceballos, with Thibaut Courtois playing out of his skin, with Bale passing his century of goals, with Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Luka Modric shaking off their World Cup hangover and with a canny purchase or two in the transfer market? Well, I find that a pretty blooming enticing and interesting prospect.