x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 24 October 2017

Real Madrid have lost their early season swagger and are in danger of losing sight of Barcelona

Defeat to Real Betis on Wednesday means Zinedine Zidane's side have failed to win any of their three league matches at the Bernabeu this season

Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo returned to the team in the 1-0 defeat to Real Betis after serving a five-match suspension. Sergio Perez / Reuters
Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo returned to the team in the 1-0 defeat to Real Betis after serving a five-match suspension. Sergio Perez / Reuters

Real Madrid looked imperious and invincible only a month ago. They had the swagger that comes with being the Spanish, European and world champions. They outclassed Manchester United in the European Super Cup and Barcelona in the Spanish Super home and away. It was Barca, according to the consensus, who had the problems, after losing Neymar.

Madrid started the season with a 3-0 win at Deportivo La Coruna - and then things started to go wrong. Zinedine Zidane’s side drew at home to Valencia in a sensational match. They also drew their second home game against Levante, a team using the same players who got them promoted, and another team who appeared not to fear a trip to the Bernabeu.

While Barca kept on winning, Madrid kept on stumbling at home. On Wednesday, they lost 1-0 against an increasing confident Real Betis and their cerebral, tactically astute manager Quique Setien, who held Madrid twice last season when managing Las Palmas.

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Setien kept four of his best attackers on the bench, introducing three as the game wore on. Wide men Andres Guardado and Ryad Boudebouz came on at half time and then after an hour, until finally captain Joaquin with two minutes to play. The psychological boost was tangible. Betis scored six minutes later, stunning a home crowd who had been supportive and had all but stopped whistling Gareth Bale, while Cristiano Ronaldo started a league game for the first time this season after serving a suspension for pushing a referee.

Still, under pressure Betis scarcely deserved victory and their goalkeeper, Madrileno and former Madrid goalkeeper Antonio Adan, had the game of his life. Madrid had 27 shots on target to Betis’ 12, yet Betis had a 90th minute effort from Paraguayan forward Arnaldo Sanabria ruled offside. It was Sanabria who got the 94th-minute headed winner to stun the Bernabeu.

It was no fluke; the result of a patient build up involving nine of the visiting players. Betis scored a similar goal at Villarreal in the previous away game.

With five league games gone, Madrid are seventh in the table and seven points behind Barcelona, who have won all five matches. All those seven points have been dropped at home and not since 1995/96 have Madrid failed to win in any of their first three home league games. Wednesday was the first time in 74 matches that Madrid have failed to score. They share the world record with Pele’s Santos for scoring in 73 consecutive matches.

Zidane, a hugely popular manager, urged caution.

“The ball just didn’t want to go in for us,” said the Frenchman. “If you score one chance it’s a totally different game, but when it doesn’t want to go in, results like this can happen. We need to remain calm, but its just two points from nine at home.

“I feel for the players, the effort they’ve put in. When the opponent scores like that at the end it hurts, but next time we have a game at home we have to ensure that we do everything we can to win and change this bad run.”

It is baffling. Madrid are carrying no significant injuries and Luca Modric was exceptional against Betis. They didn’t even play badly, but as Sergio Ramos said: “Last year we won some games we didn’t deserve to and this year it looks like the opposite but we can’t go mad about it.”

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That unpredictability is what makes football so appealing.

Madrid’s away form has been better, winning both away matches so far in La Coruna and at a Real Sociedad side who had won their opening three games. They are at winless Alaves on Saturday, but it is at home in the league where the worry remains.

Espanyol and Eibar, with one win between them away so far this season, are next. They sound like easy opponents, but Valencia and Levante, who both drew at the Bernabeu, have yet to win away.

It looked like the same for Betis, who had lost their previous two away matches … until that 94th minute Sanabria goal.

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