Joe Walker assesses how Real Madrid CF's season has unravelled and asks if they are ultimately paying the price for their 22-match winning run during the autumn?
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A week is a long time in football. Last Tuesday Real Madrid CF went into the first leg against Juventus with hopes high of becoming the first team to successfully defend the UEFA Champions League and still snapping at FC Barcelona's heels in the Liga. Those dreams lay in tatters on Wednesday.
The 2-1 defeat in Turin laid the foundations, and a 2-2 draw with Valencia CF undermined domestic ambitions, but many still made Madrid slight favourites going into the second leg at the Santiago Bernabéu. It started well enough, with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring from the penalty spot after 23 minutes, but a second-half strike from one of their own, Álvaro Morata, took the Italian champions through.
It meant a fourth semi-final exit in five years for Madrid. For a club that sets such high standards and judges players and coaches on their weight in trophies, there will no doubt be unrest within the fan base and local media. Many will ask how a side bursting with top international talent, a side that won 22 in a row in the autumn, can finish the season with only the FIFA Club World Cup to show for it?
It is a complex question, and that startling form in the first half of the season, which took them four points clear in the Liga, may have cost them in the long run. The old footballing adage is that you should never change a winning team, and Carlo Ancelotti was certainly riding the crest of a wave, rarely tampering with his star-studded starting XI. That policy of not rotating has perhaps taken its toll, with fatigue and injury.
Luck also plays a part, and it was unfortunate that integral parts of the side such as Luka Modrić, James Rodríguez, Sergio Ramos and Pepe all picked up knocks that kept them out for prolonged periods. By the end of a marked dip in the first three months of this year Madrid had been overtaken by Barcelona in the Liga and their Copa del Rey defence had been ended by Club Atlético de Madrid.
In particular the loss of Modrić to a thigh problem in November has proven fatal. The Croatia international links attack and defence perfectly, pulling the strings in midfield and initiating rapid counterattacks that so often prove devastating. The 29-year-old returned in March, helping record a 9-1 victory over Granada CF and an upturn in form – only to be ruled out for the rest of the season with a knee injury four weeks ago.
Toni Kroos is beginning to look like he is feeling the effects of 34 league starts this season following his exploits for Germany at last summer's FIFA World Cup. Bale has not had the same big game impact as he did last term. Factor in the injuries and fatigue that led to Ramos being deployed in midfield and it is perhaps not overly surprising that Madrid have come up short at the business end of the season.