Following a dispiriting opening half of 2017-18, the New Year hands Zinedine Zidane the opportunity to reassess his priorities in the knowledge the winter of his Liga discontent can still be thawed by a glorious summer of cup conquests.
Essentially, that means Madrid giving up on the league. Of course, there will be no outward admission of a failed title defence after just 16 games, but the reality is Barcelona have dropped just four points and remain the only unbeaten side in all competitions across Europe’s five wealthiest leagues. Privately, Zidane and Real president Florentino Perez may have already conceded defeat on that front.
There are, though, other fish within reach of Zidane’s frying pan. Madrid have proven themselves a formidable cup team over the past decade with three Champions League triumphs and two Copas del Rey on top of multiple Super and Club World Cup titles. Real have repeated the long format trick just twice since 2007-08 and in Zidane possess a coach who has won seven cup competitions in two years in charge.
Progress to the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey is practically assured after Real were paired with Numancia, who are flying high in Segunda but will find the step up against the European champions beyond their reach — the competition’s two-legged system is designed precisely to keep the big guns firing into February.
Madrid’s greater European nous also gives them a slight edge over Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League. The Ligue 1 big-spenders learned a costly lesson in naivety against Barcelona last season but may not have sufficiently matured to get the better of a side that shut out Atletico in the opening semifinal leg last season and put six past Bayern in the previous round.
Chasing the league leaders is a case of shutting the barn door with the claret and blue-clad horse already halfway to the horizon. Barcelona have only to play Sevilla of the current top six away from home and have a kind January fixture list in comparison to Madrid, who face Valencia, Villarreal and Celta.
Even victory in their game in hand against Leganes in February and a Clasico win in Camp Nou would leave Real eight points adrift of Barcelona, which remains a mountain no side has climbed in Liga history to claim the title.
Zidane will keep hammering the same attacking nails into place domestically while hoping the rest of his side holds together at least until the end of the season. Atletico and Valencia currently occupy the automatic Champions League qualification places and will not surrender them lightly but the prospect of Real finishing outside the top four for the first time since 1999-2000 is remote given the relative lack of unpredictability in the competition today — Deportivo won the league that season and Zaragoza beat Real into fourth but Vicente del Bosque ensured Madrid’s record of participating in the Champions League every season since 1996-97 by winning the competition.
Zidane will not need to rely on European glory for a place in next season’s group stage but neither should he expect any significant January reinforcements other than the possible incorporation of Athletic keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, in one of few positions where strengthening isn’t immediately required. A new striker will be addressed in the summer, when potential youthful targets such as Timo Werner will not be cup-tied in Europe.
A January dip into the market would pit Perez against the bottomless wells of cash available to Real’s main competitors in Manchester, Paris and Catalonia, something the Real president will be keen to avoid with the winter premium in place and the painful memory of some serious finger-burning in the past.
This does not necessarily work to Zidane’s disadvantage. The Frenchman will be permitted the luxury of using his fringe players more frequently in the league to concentrate on the cups, while he decides who stays and who goes in what is likely to be a swingeing summer clear-out at the Bernabeu. Achraf Hakimi, Marcos Llorente, Borja Mayoral and Jesus Vallejo have plenty to prove in the next few months while more established senior stars, most notably Karim Benzema, can no longer take their privileged first-team status for granted. In the meantime, the talents of Isco and Marco Asensio can be given greater licence to flourish.
A repeat of 2017’s five titles was always going to a hard act for Zidane to follow but there is plenty to be added to his laurels if he can keep his key squad members off the treatment table for the Copa del Rey and Champions League.
Real have not lifted the domestic cup since 2013-14, exiting at the quarterfinal stage last season at the hands of Celta Vigo, and it remains the only major title to elude Zidane. The reigning champions also have the opportunity to become the first side since Bayern Munich in 1974-76 to win Europe’s most coveted prize three times in a row. If that happens Zidane will stand alone as the only manager in history to complete a treble of consecutive European Cup/Champions League victories.
It would take Zidane’s side just 14 games, with a little room for manoeuvre, to achieve a cup double. To overhaul Barcelona may require winning their remaining 22: the Real manager’s focus for the rest of the season should be trained beyond La Liga.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.