New-look Real Madrid need beloved Uefa Champions League for morale boost
Primera Liga setbacks softened only because table-toppers Barcelona have had equally ordinary run of recent form
For Raphaël Varane and Luka Modric, Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium will always evoke greatness.
Two and a half months ago, these serial European club champions contested a World Cup final on its turf. As rain tipped down on them after the final whistle, the Frenchman Varane had his hands on the trophy and the Croatian Modric had his compensation medal, as Player of the Tournament.
They both looked back on a cascade of goals, six over the 90 minutes of the final, the sort of attacking potency their Real Madrid could use right now, as the Uefa Champions League holders prepare to take on CSKA Moscow at Russia’s most fabled arena.
Madrid need their favourite competition to stimulate morale.
Saturday’s goalless draw in the derby against Atletico followed a 3-0 defeat to Sevilla, setbacks in the tussle for leadership of the Primera Liga softened only because table-toppers Barcelona have had an equally ordinary run of recent form.
Madrid have registered just two goals in their last four domestic matches. Their new manager, Julen Lopetegui, was encouraged by the resilience of his team after Atletico had begun the derby the stronger of the two sides. He urged his players to “follow the path we showed in the second half against Atletico and against Roma".
Madrid started the defence of their Champions League title with a 3-0 win over Roma to gain early leadership of Group G.
But they go to Moscow without two of the season’s three leading scorers, the injured Gareth Bale and the rested Sergio Ramos, and with Karim Benzema, who started the season in impressive fashion but is now without a goal in five outings.
Privately, Lopetegui knew the moment would come when the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, now of Juventus, would be noted amid much head-shaking and pessimism about what his departure entailed.
But through August, Lopetegui could imagine Madrid were finding ways of restyling their game so that the vast gap left by Ronaldo - goal-machine and match-winner supreme - would gradually close, the stitches barely visible.
The Bale injury, a thigh problem, has come at an awkward time. But alas, not at time that will especially surprise the manager or his support staff.
In five of his six seasons as a Madrid player, the Welshman has suffered a fitness setback at around this time of year, when summer shifts towards autumn. There is no longer any real expectation that his body can bear an entire campaign without significant interruption for muscle strains or pulls.
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Lopetegui lobbied Madrid for the purchase of an established, elite striker in the summer, once Ronaldo’s €100 million (Dh426m)-plus sale to Juve was agreed. In the end, Madrid signed Mariano Diaz, a former graduate of their academy, and a much-developed player in his season at Lyon.
Mariano, 25, is still an up-and-coming footballer, though. He scored a wonderful goal from the bench against Roma, and may get his first start in the Champions League in Moscow.
There might also be some minutes for Vinicius Junior, too, the 18-year-old, €45m winger signed this year from Flamengo in his native Brazil amid much hype and given his Liga debut as a very late substitute against Atletico.
With Marcelo also recovery from a calf injury, and Isco coming back from an appendix operation, it will be a makeshift, and very likely a youthful Madrid on show, with, in the absence of Ramos and Marcelo, an unfamiliar captain urging the team to not let a dip in form turn into a trough.
Lopetegui already owns one uncomfortable rarity, a sequence of successive Liga games without a Madrid goal, unprecedented since September 2011.
The detail he will have analysed more closely, meticulous student that he is, will be the decline in shots compared with the Ronaldo era.
There have 118 of them so far this term, a full enough number but a great deal less than even last season, when Madrid began erratically in defence of previous manager Zinedine Zidane’s 2017 league title and still had attempted 145 shots at the same stage of the campaign.
Their 12 league goals from the first seven fixtures so far in 2017/18 represent their lowest yield of goals for a decade.
And the man looking to keep Madrid black on Tuesday night, in goal for CSKA, will be one Igor Akinfeev. He has known some heavy defeats in his long Champions League career. But more recently celebrated a famous last-16 triumph for Russia against Spain, on penalties, at the World Cup, in Moscow.
He will be content there is no Ronaldo, and no Bale to bear down on him at the Luzhniki.
Updated: October 1, 2018 10:11 PM