Super Cup Defeat Adds to Real Madrid’s Post-Ronaldo Narrative of Negativity

Super Cup Defeat Adds to Real Madrid’s Post-Ronaldo Narrative of Negativity

Saturday, 18 August, 2018 - 07:15
Real Madrid lost 4-2 to neighbors Atlético Madrid in the Uefa Super Cup – Julen Lopetegui’s first competitive game in charge after replacing Zinedine Zidane. Photograph: Harold Cunningham/Uefa via Getty Images
London- Jonathan Wilson
It was only the Uefa Super Cup. It was only a defeat in extra time. Real Madrid won this competition last year and that meant very little for a disappointing league season which in turn meant very little for a triumphant Champions League campaign. The needle flickers, form fluctuates, priorities change and, when you are a club as stuffed with talent as Real Madrid, trophies usually follow.

And yet Wednesday’s game in Tallinn was not just another game, not even just another Super Cup. It was Real Madrid’s first competitive game after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo – and it was lost. Perhaps they would have lost with Ronaldo. Perhaps the game would not even have gone to extra time. Perhaps he would not even have played (last season, against Manchester United in Skopje, he came off the bench with eight minutes remaining). Perhaps he would have done something stupid, as he did in the Spanish Super Cup against Barcelona last season and got himself banned for five games. But none of that matters: what matters is that Ronaldo has gone and Real Madrid lost.

Discussion of narrative in football tends to prompt a roll of the eyes but, much as with gods, even if narratives are false or nonexistent they can exert a powerful influence. They are a way of ordering thoughts, of making sense of often random events, and by generating moods they can shape events. And for Real Madrid defeat in Tallinn slipped all too neatly into a mounting narrative of negativity.

“For the most part we were better,” said Madrid’s new coach, Julen Lopetegui, “but we couldn’t take advantage of that fact and they made good use of all the chances they had.” That may not have been strictly accurate but it was broadly true and that adds to the sense of concern; something has changed. In the past few years, particularly in the Champions League, Real Madrid have often prevailed despite not being better, at times almost inexplicably so.

Except there has always been an explanation: Cristiano Ronaldo. There may have been times when he left Madrid vulnerable by failing to fulfil his defensive functions. There may have been times when his demand everything should orbit around him cost Madrid fluidity, but he averaged 50 goals a season for nine years. Get the ball somewhere near him in a dangerous position and the chances were he would score. That may be a method too haphazard to win many league titles – only two in those nine years – but in the knockout rounds of the Champions League it has proved devastatingly effective and is not easily replicated.

But there is a psychological dimension as well. Remove a star and a little darkness inevitably falls, particularly when there has been no compensatory signing of a galáctico. At most clubs the departure of a 33-year-old and the extra opportunities consequently afforded to young domestic talent such as Isco, Marco Asensio and Lucas Vázquez could be spun as a positive but Madrid are a club whose self-image is built on big signings and this season there have been none.

Perhaps that is a little unfair on Thibaut Courtois but in the modern world goalkeepers are rarely perceived as stars. The Belgian aside, the only arrivals have been the 18-year-old Brazilian Vinícius Júnior, completing a deal agreed last year, and the 22-year-old winger Álvaro Odriozola. Talk of Neymar, Kylian Mbappé and Eden Hazard has come to nothing. There is still time, of course, but for now there is a continuation of the downward drift that began with Ronaldo hinting at his departure in the bowels of the Olimpiyskiy in Kyiv minutes after the Champions League final and continued with the mistimed and misjudged announcement of the appointment of Lopetegui to succeed Zinedine Zidane on the eve of the World Cup.

On the pitch Madrid perhaps pressed with a little more purpose than they had – Lopetegui, after all, although he began his playing career at Madrid, was at Barcelona for the tail-end of Johan Cruyff’s reign – but were otherwise unremarkable.

Gareth Bale was threatening in the first half, and set up Karim Benzema’s goal but faded in the second. Benzema, so used to playing off Ronaldo, at times dropped deep in a way that, with neither Bale nor Asensio making runs beyond him, meant there was a lack of a target in the box. Sergio Ramos’s elbows remained as sharp as ever but both he and Raphaël Varane were oddly diffident at times. Marcelo demonstrated once again that he is a fine attacking full-back and an ordinary defensive one.

None of it was anything particularly out of the ordinary for a first game of the season and, but for some very fine finishing from Atlético, it might not even have meant defeat. But they did lose and so the narrative of negativity gathers pace. Madrid never conceded four in a game under Zidane. They had not lost in a continental final in 18 years. And they have lost Ronaldo. Lopetegui insisted defeat would not change transfer policy, and statement signings made without thought to the overall structure rarely work, but a big arrival may be the simplest way to shift Madrid out of the shadow of Ronaldo.


(The Guardian)

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