At times it hasn’t been pretty, and there is still a lot of work to be done, but there is a sense that Zinedine Zidane has something akin to a decent team on his hands at the Bernabéu. Unbeaten in all competitions since October, Madrid have a three-point cushion on Barcelona at the top of La Liga (as of the start of February). Of course, one could argue that Real Madrid have simply capitalised on Barcelona’s travails of late, which seem to have gone into overdrive after a breakdown between Lionel Messi and Eric Abidal. The boat is really rocking at Camp Nou.
But Madrid’s push towards redemption has been about more than skipping past a tiring Barcelona or being the best of a bad lot in a seemingly declining La Liga. Zidane is slowly rebuilding a team; a unit far removed from the collections of Galácticos we saw in the past. A mean defence, one that has conceded fewer league goals (13) than Liverpool, and fully half that of Barcelona’s 26. Moreover, there is a sense of playing for the shirt again, embodied by the wonderful Casemiro and the rejuvenated Toni Kroos.
Sometimes the team plays ugly football, and sometimes there is a semblance of attacking flair. But it seems that Zidane is reverting to that time-honoured strategy of football management when things go awry – making his team difficult to beat. The defence, shielded by the best defensive midfielder in global football, Casemiro, offers a platform for the flair players. Once they get the latter right, Madrid could be back on top.
Madrid now favourites for La Liga
As mentioned, they aren’t there yet. But it feels like the football world is once again waking up to respect Madrid. Bookmakers have pushed them into odds on prices (4/6 with Unibet) for the La Liga title, although Barcelona have certainly not been ruled out at 11/10. But even mounting a proper title challenge will be enough for observers to see progress with Los Blancos, after finishing miles off in 2019 and 2018.
However, as is always the case with Madrid fans, the Champions League is the yardstick on which Real players are judged. Passage to the Last 16 was bumpy, but, in the end, they set up an enthralling date with Manchester City. And yet, while the bookmakers seem to have got it right with La Liga odds, one could argue that they have badly underestimated Madrid in their quest for yet another Champions League trophy.
Underestimated in Champions League
For a start, there seems to be no regard for City’s struggles this season, with the bookies unanimously sticking with Guardiola’s side as favourites at around 7/2 (Betfair). As a consequence, Madrid are pushed out to 16/1. There are some great bookies offers at the bookiesoffers.co.uk, including free bets, and we would make the case Madrid at 16s are worthwhile punt for using one. Those odds will tumble if Madrid get past City (they are 13/8 to make the quarters), and anyone who has witnessed City capitulate in games against teams Norwich and Wolves this season will know that’s a real possibility.
All of this talk of winning when a team is in transition should not be dismissed; after all, this is Real Madrid, and the fans will demand it. But one would argue that it’s also necessary for Zidane to win if he is to keep his project on the same trajectory. Some of those summer signings have flopped, whereas others are digging in. But another squad overhaul is not the answer. Patience is key to getting Madrid back to the top of world football. It may not happen this season, but it feels a lot more likely than it did just a few months ago.