A fortnight from Real Madrid’s make-or-break Champions League clash with Paris Saint-Germain, coach Zinedine Zidane has just one fit centre-back and no available senior right-back ready for the game on which their season now hinges.
It makes Madrid’s unwillingness to consider signing defensive cover during the January transfer window look a major mistake.
Captain Sergio Ramos is sidelined with a niggling calf muscle issue, Raphael Varane has taken a knock to his troublesome right knee and Jesus Vallejo will not play again until March due to a hamstring tear. That leaves Nacho Fernandez as the only centre-back free of injury worries in the build-up to PSG’s arrival at the Bernabeu for Feb. 14’s UCL round-of-16 first leg.
Zidane’s plan had been to use utility man Nacho at right-back in that game, marking PSG’s Neymar. Usual first choice Dani Carvajal is suspended while teenage back-up Achraf Hakimi’s form and confidence has slumped so much that he was whistled by the Bernabeu during last week’s embarrassing Copa del Rey exit to lowly Leganes.
There has been little talk of this situation among Blancos fans and pundits, especially given how potent PSG’s attack of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani has looked all season. Most of the focus has been on potential attacking reinforcements, with the local media considering potential new attacking Galacticos like Neymar, Harry Kane, Eden Hazard, Mauro Icardi or Alexis Sanchez. Talk of the need for a new attacker came amid a big focus on how Madrid have missed the goals and assists of last summer’s departures Alvaro Morata and James Rodriguez.
Just as important has been the lack of experienced cover at the back following the exits of Pepe and Danilo. Neither the Portugal centre-back nor the Brazil right-back were first choice last season, but they featured 18 and 25 times respectively across all competitions and played important roles in the team’s La Liga and Champions League double success.
Madrid’s defensive issues have been clear all season. Zidane’s side kept just two clean sheets in six Champions League group games — both against outsiders APOEL Nicosia. There have been just seven shutouts in 21 games so far in La Liga. Fuenlabrada, Numancia and Leganes all managed to score twice in the Copa del Rey at the Bernabeu. The ease with which Barcelona cut through in their 3-0 Clasico win at the Bernabeu before Christmas should have been a wake-up call. Even after winning 4-1 at Valencia last weekend, Zidane admitted that goalkeeper Keylor Navas had “saved us” with a string of important stops when the game was in the balance.
Injuries have not helped, with Ramos, Varane and Vallejo having had three separate spells on the sidelines so far this season.
This is not exactly a surprise, as Varane has had recurring knee trouble through recent years, while youngster Vallejo was hampered last season at Eintracht Frankfurt by persistent calf and hamstring concerns.
At full-back, the plan of relying on kids Achraf, 19, and Theo Hernandez, 20, as cover for Carvajal and Marcelo maybe made sense on paper last summer as both look excellent prospects. But the pair have struggled when given a chance, unsurprisingly given the general turmoil around the club in recent months.
As far back as November, the idea of signing a new defender to add experienced cover was floated by some reporters close to the club. As the weeks passed, Lazio’s Stefan De Vrij, Chelsea’s out-of-favour David Luiz and Inter’s Milan Skriniar were all linked with the Bernabeu. None are as exciting as Kane or Hazard, but somebody with their profile was badly needed.
But each poor result seems to have strengthened Zidane’s determination that he was not going to look to the market for a quick-fix solution to his team’s problems. That was understandable when it came to underperforming but proven stars in Cristiano Ronaldo and Luka Modric, or supporting Navas from the threat of Athletic Bilbao youngster Kepa Arrizabalaga. But less so when the problem was a lack of available bodies at the back.
The latest fitness news this week has been mixed. Ramos could be back for Saturday’s La Liga trip to Levante, and assuming there is no serious setback he looks sure to start against PSG, although he will still be seriously short of match sharpness.
The hope would be that a rest will allow Varane’s knee to recover so he can return to partner Ramos in the middle of the back four. That would allow Nacho to play right-back against PSG at the Bernabeu. Carvajal would come back into the team for the away game in Paris on March 6.
That is assuming there are no new setbacks, and goes against the experience so far this season. Madrid’s defensive resources are stretched, and they remain one niggle away from starting their most important game of the season with a patched up back four.
It was a problem that could have been quite easily fixed in the January market, but it was just completely ignored.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan