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As La Liga returns, Real Madrid need to slay lingering demons

La Liga is coming back. Real Madrid plays in 10 days for the first time in nearly three months.

To rewind and recap: The life was sucked out of the Clasico-win-party after the team lost in Sevilla to Real Betis. The players felt frustrated they didn’t enter the football hiatus as league leaders. They should’ve been on top. They’re not, for the same reason they have won only two league titles in the last 11 years: The locked-in killer-mentality doesn’t appear on a consistent basis. The grind of each game over the course of the 40-game season is not enough to discipline the team. Motivation is scattered.

Now there is nothing to focus on but getting into shape and winning every game left. There is no other tournament to zap the team’s domestic spotlight.

It almost feels like a new season is upon us. Tactical observations from three months ago (and prior) seem like they stem from a different era. The team’s state after losing to Manchester City and Betis is entirely different than it would’ve been had COVID-19 not infiltrated the globe. The second leg in Manchester, inside a packed stadium, would’ve been played already and without Eden Hazard.

Now that game is likely going to be played long after the league has ended, and with Eden Hazard — and with plenty of time to ruminate that tactical failings of the first leg. How would you approach a second-leg fixture if it was played in almost entirely a different season? The mental state, the preparations, and everything in-between levels the playing field more than a 2 – 1 deficit would normally feel.

There is a strong case that now, more than ever, there are no excuses to drop points. What Barcelona does from here on in is out of Real Madrid’s control. But, it would be unfathomable if Quique Setien’s men don’t drop points in their remaining 11 games.

In Real Madrid’s quest to pick up a victory in every game needed, the odds are skewed in their favour, and despite being second in the league table by a small margin, losing the league now, after the mental break and additional time for injured players to heal, should be viewed as an untenable failure.

Some would argue that all teams are on one level playing field. Everyone has had the same amount of time off. Many teams have the added benefit of key players returning from injury. No one has home field advantage.

It’s more than that. Real Madrid have more resources than any club to stay in peak physical shape. In a call with La Liga ambassadors yesterday on Zoom, ex-players, particularly Diego Forlan, reminded us that many footballers in Spain don’t have access to even basic means of sustaining the physical activity that is required for the level they’re being asked to return to. Most players don’t have access to a yard to run, and in Spain, running outside during the lockdown was not an option. On the flip-side, Sergio Ramos reminded us all of his state-of-the-art treadmill as meals were prepared for him. Many have reported that players like Ramos and Gareth Bale are in the ‘shape of their lives’.

There is also the matter of squad depth. There is no team better prepared to deal with match-fitness issues than Real Madrid, who have the deepest squad in La Liga. Five substitutions allowed for Real Madrid is not the same as five substitutions allowed for Eibar. Zidane has hungry young players off the bench at his disposal.

(There is a counter to the five-sub thing to be fair, as Quique Setien pointed out last week: “I think the five substitutes [rule] is going to harm us because we’ve resolved many games in the final few minutes and our opponents will [now] have fresh legs,” Setien’s view is valid but may or may not be more applicable to Barcelona, who have a relentless possession style and one path to goal — a path that requires opponents to either break down defensively or just break down physically, full stop.)

On Monday, Lucas Vazquez proclaimed the annual empty “x games, x finals” blanket statement: “We’ve got 11 finals ahead of us, that’s how we’re taking these games. I hope we can get 11 wins to get La Liga.” Everyone always says that during crunch time, but only one team actually puts their foot on the pedal in the clutch. As overused as his statement is, there is a part of me that feels there is something more to it this time around. If the team still had their mind on other competitions, ‘11 finals’ aren’t actually 11 finals. For a team that historically turns their conscious-brain off during La Liga as their subconscious tells them: “Today is a pick-up game. We’ll wait until the mid-week Champions League game to actually exert our power” maybe they can focus now, more than in previous years when they were capable, to actually do it.

Real Madrid aren’t wired to win the league. The players and managers will often deny this, but sometimes discuss this inherent flaw. In the 2017 – 2018 season, when Real Madrid eventually fell 17 points off of Barcelona in the league but won the Champions League, you could almost copy, paste, and schedule Zidane’s post-game presser where he talked about the awareness the team had in their slow start to games — often leaving it late when it’s too late. He’d mention that the team needs to be psychologically ready next time to not wait to click into gear until the 70th minute. Then he’d shrug, and repeat those words after the following game. In that season in particular, a game against Espanyol away from home sticks out, where the team not only lost, but had a completely disinterested body language to chase the ball, take players on, get into open channels, and do anything beyond having the ball at their feet from time to time. That body language would’ve been on the opposite end of the spectrum had it been a Champions League night. Barcelona, even in their ‘worst’ era, with corruption at the board level, multiple injuries, and little help around an older Lionel Messi, go to war in every single game. They are wired differently in La Liga.

In addition to Vazquez’s quote about 11 finals, the Spanish winger also spoke about the team’s emphasis on mental preparation during these intense training sessions. Whatever grounds them and locks them in at this time in order to actually blitz through 11 finals will be important. From a physical standpoint, they are as ready as anyone, if not more. How will the return of football, behind closed doors and without Champions League distractions, affect their drive to lift their 34th league title?

It is important to not get carried away too much with Real Madrid’s elite physical status. The physical specimens that are Gareth Bale and Sergio Ramos, will always be ‘in shape’. To the average human, they are, from a body composition standpoint, Greek Gods. But that means nothing if, in Gareth Bale’s case, you’re still worried about going into a challenge with fear of getting injured.

As Toni Kroos puts it, physical shape is different from being match fit, and, in turn, being able to keep your touch on the ball smooth and fluid:

“The weeks we’ve been at home we haven’t touched the ball much,” Kroos said on Wednesday. “We could work on the physical side of things at home, but not on the ball and even less so with the group. The most important thing is to touch the ball a lot,”

As the return of the season looms, one storyline brews alongside it: Just how badly do Real Madrid want to win the league? Not on the mainstream level where they can tell us they want it, but deep down in their subconscious — how much do they want it? How much can we buy into the ‘11 finals’ mindset? In years’ past, La Liga has been the equivalent of showing up to a 9-5 job for Real Madrid; while the Champions League has been where they unlocked every ounce of mental and physical energy. That has to change.

The return of football is a new season. Zidane and the players need to hit the ground running, and sprint to the finish line.

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