Amid all of the criticism of Rafael Benitez in the wake of Real Madrid’s defeat at Sevilla , a comment from one journalist stood out:
“Madrid had the game right there, to kill off, and they’ve backed off deeper and deeper to throw it away… just like they did against Athletic.”
And it stood out mainly because, amid the sea of agenda and nonsense, it was fair and justified criticism. Okay, Athletic away in Bilbao was actually one game they won (after throwing away a lead) but Benitez’s natural pragmatism has been something that has been a time bomb ever since he arrived at the Bernabeu.
A good run of results has only given those holding the knives time to sharpen their instruments, waiting for the bad result. The previous one had come, just as Sunday’s did, in the final game before the international break.
In pictures: Sevilla 3-2 Real Madrid
Last time it was a 1-0 lead thrown away at local rivals Atletico and ending in a draw . In Seville it was all three points, three goals to boot and a feeling of lots of this season’s good work being undone.
Until Sunday evening Real Madrid had the best defence of any team in Europe, and that was achieved despite injuries to key players (including three of their first-choice back four) and their brilliant goalkeeper. They’d conceded four goals all season in the Champions League and La Liga combined, being particularly miserly at home, and hadn’t lost.
Injury-plagued: Bale has been just one of the Madrid stars to miss large swathes of this season
But it wasn’t just injuries on the defensive side, they have also lost Gareth Bale, James Jodriguez, Karim Benzema, Luka Modric and others, leaving a star-studded squad threadbare and allowing Benitez the excuse to play what is, in truth, the style he’d prefer.
“People confuse organised with defensive,” he said a few weeks back in a press conference, defending his philosophy. For most of the time he has been in Madrid he has been toeing the right side of that line, but against Atleti he had two feet over it.
Equaliser: Atletico level late-on against Real Madrid
“We weren’t able to manage the situation,” he said on Sunday night. “It seemed as if the game was under control and then it wasn’t.”
It may have stayed so had Sergio Ramos not got injured, but had he not put Real Madrid in front so acrobatically then he wouldn’t have come down on his bad shoulder like that and injured himself again , so there is the feeling that these two cancel each other out.
Acrobat: Ramos scores a stunning opener
Bitter aftertaste: Ramos was taken off injured after aggravating a shoulder injury
Granted, with Ramos on the field it seems hard to imagine the defending being as inutterably awful as it was for Ciro Immobile’s equaliser from a corner, but what excuse therein? Sevilla could have scored four or five, Immobile could have won the game on his own, yet Real Madrid only created two or three genuine opportunities all game. His critics feel “manage the situation” is double-talk and that he doesn’t think big enough for this club.
Rafa is not necessarily fighting against aesthetes here, those who are simply puritanical about how the game should be played, he’s fighting against Madridistas who are puritanical about how Madrid should play.
There is a difference, and what hurts most for Benitez is that those most fervent in their beliefs are high up in influential media organisations and have political motives for what they say and do.
Under pressure: Real Madrid boss Rafael Benitez
Which is why we’ve begun to see the tide turn on Cristiano Ronaldo too.
Now the Portuguese has been the golden boy of the Bernabeu for some time and, in truth, no-one could say he hasn’t earned it.
Goal after goal after goal, more even than Raúl or Ferenc Puskas or Alfredo di Stefano, his achievements in all-white are nothing to be sniffed at and he deserves to be revered. Yet with the way his on-pitch performances have started to suffer and his off-field performances have started to stink of Jorge-Mendes-transfer-endgame, this defeat to Sevilla appears to have triggered the first genuinely harsh criticisms of the 30-year-old.
All-time great: Ronaldo is honoured as Madrid’s highest-ever goalscorer
As covered on these pages before , Ronaldo is quite obviously no longer a winger but has privately insisted on playing there. Performances like Sunday night (“he seemed to not even be in the stadium” from Madrid newspaper AS ) only serve to confirm that he would be far better off back in his ‘emergency’ position of centre-forward, where he starred during Madrid’s injury crisis and pulled himself out of his longest barren streak in a white shirt (during which, interestingly, there was little criticism of him and much support – the difference six weeks of ambiguous comments over his future makes).
Otherwise you get what we saw in Seville, with Bale playing his first ever game as a striker and the inevitable results.
Drawing blank: Bale failed to make a significant impact as a striker
“The problem that Benitez has is that there are players who don’t know what position they’re playing in,” read the match report in Marca on Monday morning.
“Ronaldo and Bale move around the field but when they have the ball they need to bring something to the table, when they don’t it’s just nothingness. Nothing.
“Isco was signalled to come off as a substitute when there were other players like Kroos, Ronaldo or Bale that did little or nothing.”
Struggles: Ronaldo and Bale were criticised for their displays in Seville
Usually an easy target for the local media, even a fairly unimpressive Bale outperformed Ronaldo, who visibly provoked the ire of his teammates by greedily shooting – and wide, at that – when Luka Modric and James Rodriguez were both through on goal to his right. The usually mild-mannered Modric raged at the Portuguese, one of the few players who seems capable of getting away with doing so, and Ronaldo’s refusal to make eye contact told its own story.
There is a growing sensation that Ronaldo is heading to Paris in the summer. Watch his “not me, boss” interaction with Florentino Perez when challenged on ambiguous comments over his future, and then observe his chummy rapport with Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser El-Khelaifi , all played out by accident (of course) in front of the cameras.
El-Khelaifi then proceeded to walk through the mixed zone stopping to talk to anyone who would listen, quite unusual for a senior club executive if he hadn’t been so willing dropping suggestive comments about Ronaldo’s transfer to anyone who would care to ask him… so that would be everyone.
Ronaldo’s body language on the field is deteriorating rapidly – a cynic might suggest that is a deliberate ploy – and then, on the Bernabeu pitch on Tuesday night and in plain sight of all supporters, he held a whispered conversation in the ear of the manager that is keen to sign him. At best that’s probably ill-advised, at worst it’s probably Mendes-advised.
The latter may be transparent but it’s effective, with Le Parisien alleging that Ronaldo stepped up his flirting by telling Laurent Blanc he’d love to work with him one day . That day may not be too far off now.
Mais oui: Cristiano Ronaldo said he wants to work with PSG boss Laurent Blanc
Ronaldo has given Real Madrid his best years and although he is still playing at an elite level, he is indisputably on the decline. Some in Barcelona have even asked the question whether Neymar may have overtaken the Portugal skipper as world number two. With this in mind, it wouldn’t be terrible business to flog the 30-year-old while he retains his value, and the Spanish press will probably come round to that idea quite soon. Still raw, some appeared to do so last night:
“Cristiano is possibly enduring the worst period of his career,” said Radio COPE’s Manolo Lama.
“Cristiano Ronaldo has no excuse,” said his colleague Paco Gonzalez. “He was just bad.”
Tough times: Ronaldo isn’t enjoying himself on the field
Expect the increasing criticism of Cristiano to have a strong positive correlation with his proximity to the Bernabeu exit door, although there may be a pause for a fortnight as Madrid looks towards el clásico.
For that is Benitez’s next challenge, an international break with few of his players at the training ground and then the visit of Barcelona, who are just starting to find some real form and may have Lionel Messi back.
Lose that game and the shrieking will be deafening.
Win it and it’s still hard to see how either Ronaldo or Rafa will still be at Real Madrid next season.
Source: WP Daily Mirror UK