It’s a Club World Cup champion for a fifth time, hunting consecutive La Liga titles, pursuing a 20th Copa del Rey, and an obvious choice for a 15th Champions League crown. So, it seems pretty crazy to be critical of Real Madrid.
Real welcomes lowly Elche on Wednesday, with the Alicante guest rooted to the foot of the table despite picking up a first league win of the season in preparation for this ominous assignment. Anything other than a home victory for Real—which would sustain the pressure on league-topping rival Barcelona in the standings—would be a seismic shock.
The paradox of Real, this sporting institution shouldering weighty expectations like no other, is there are still little things to pick away at, even when things seem rosy. Real could thump Elche and eventually finish the season with four trophies. Yet the fanbase won’t be fully satisfied in the intervening period. And there will be noise and doubts—especially from the Madrid press frenzy surrounding the club after any slip-up—until further silverware keeps a smile on president Florentino Pérez’s face.
Coach Carlo Ancelotti is unfazed. He’s committed to his project, despite fanciful rumors suggesting he’s about to take another coveted, pressurized role: Brazil’s new head coach. For Real, that’s good news, for he is a steady pair of hands who has sharpened a talented—if not occasionally faulty—team going into the business end of the campaign.
Onto more positives first. Ancelotti, by and large, found the winning formula. As Diario AS put forward, Los Blancos have won a trophy for every 23.2 games under the Italian across his two spells, bettering predecessor Zinedine Zidane’s record and the likes of Vincent del Bosque and José Mourinho before him. Efficient. The next step is to catch Zidane’s haul of 11 accolades as boss. That would hush anyone questioning his suitability for the role, especially if he does so by the summer.
Typically, his charges have shown the classic mental strength to get over the line in awkward games—with opposition teams having to execute their game plan to nigh on perfection to prosper in most cases. A considerable part of that is down to flair players like Vinícius Júnior—its key man lately—making huge strides forward and playing with the swagger demanded by the white shirt.
There are some holes, though. Despite the high standards, Real needs to catch up in some metrics. With more goals, Barcelona is purring most as an attacking force and, arguably more significantly, is the most stubborn defensively, having not reached double figures on strikes conceded.
Another frustration is how it starts matches. As games enter the second period, Real comes to life, there being an ominous sense that a breakthrough strike is only a moment away. Ancelotti will be concerned that beginning sluggishly will come back to haunt the group at some stage, as it did on the Balearic Islands away to victorious Mallorca.
Ancelotti is confident some of the old guards will sign new deals, with midfielder Toni Kroos and marksman Karim Benzema poised to stay. There is a sense, however—certainly among the more demanding fanbase—that another galáctico wouldn’t go amiss. The clamor for Kylian Mbappé goes on, with Real and president Pérez’s pride dented after initially failing to entice the forward.
Other headaches persist, too. For example, what’s the point of keeping injury-prone Eden Hazard on the payroll, given his few contributions after costing €115 million ($123 million) in transfer fees before wages? And can it do better than Mariano Díaz as a backup striker? When the team wins, both stay outside the spotlight. But when it loses? Both talents, and their costs, appear somewhat wasted.
Then there’s another peculiarity, which is the perceptions outside. It’s not uncommon for many Spaniards—except those from Barcelona, the Basque Country, and the more autonomous regions—to support Real by default when a major European final comes along. Others loathe madridismo and the institution, too. For a moment, Real Valladolid boss Pacheta must have felt that way earlier this season when a controversial penalty cost his side points against the La Liga champion.
Under Ancelotti, Real Madrid is efficient in winning heavily and reliable in dashing others’ hopes. Depending on your vantage point, there is something to admire and disfavor.