Real Madrid could be on the road to redemption after the dark days of the Julen Lopetegui era. Santi Solari has installed the core beliefs and ethics into a side that has struggled for an identity after so much success. Although a 2-0 win at home to Real Valladolid doesn’t seem like huge progress, it was their first in five league games, making it vitally important. In the past, a Madrid team consisting of Cristiano Ronaldo might’ve been booed off with a similar scoreline. Times have changed in the Spanish capital.
Ronaldo has moved on, leaving a gaping hole that nobody can ever fill. You simply cannot replace the goals and winning mentality that the 5-time Ballon d’Or winner brought to the club. However, ‘step by step’ as Solari calls it, Real are moving forward again. The calls for an 18-year-old Brazilian to get some minutes have been answered and seem to be justified. Vinicius Junior, sparingly used by Lopetegui, has played most of his football in Madrid’s B team under Solari this season. Madrid’s caretaker boss sent on this inexperienced, eccentric character with the game goalless with 20 minutes to go; the following morning and the youngster was on the front pages of Spanish newspapers, being credited with changing the game.
Marca and AS, the two Madrid-orientated papers, charged him with changing the team’s ‘luck’. And sometimes it is luck. Had Vinicius’ shot not taken a blatant deflection off Kiko Olivas, who knows if the hosts would’ve earned the 3 points they eventually got? If Lopetegui had given the £38m summer signing more of a chance, who knows if he would’ve changed any of Lopetegui’s luck? After finding the net, although his goal was eventually awarded to Olivas, Vinicius went over to Solari and hugged him, the temporary boss still pointing and instructing his players. The work is not done yet.
The difference between Los Blancos’ performances before and after Lopetegui’s sacking have not been black and white. Solari has made his own mark of the team without taking away its central style. He just wants that winning mentality back, and so does Florentino Pérez. The Madrid president insisted his club could ‘still win everything this season’ despite their poor start. Since leaving for Juventus, Cristiano Ronaldo claimed that he no longer felt valued by Pérez. Maybe that’s what we’re seeing here. Surely expectations have to change if you lose one of the best players in the world and the top scorer in your club’s history.
Across town, murmurs and whispers are growing around Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid. They currently sit 3rd in the table, 4 points behind the leaders Barcelona, but have scored just 13 goals in 11 league games. Some fans are becoming impatient with Simeone’s ‘cholismo’ style and, after a 5th draw of the season at lowly Leganés on Saturday, those murmurs and whispers have gotten louder. El Cholismo, the structured and efficient style of play named after Diego ‘Cholo’ Simeone, has enjoyed success for years but has it run its course? Simeone spoke openly about style in his pre-match press conference; “a team’s style is what places the side or a coach in a certain place, football is wonderful because there are so many different ways of playing.
All of the teams, as we have seen in LaLiga Santander, no longer play the same way as they did three or four years ago” – that was Simeone’s mantra towards the increased competitiveness of La Liga this season. However, the surprise sides that have emerged over the last couple of months showed signs of slowing down at the weekend. Valladolid were defeated at the Bernabéu, Alavés lost a lead at Eibar while Espanyol could continue to fly the flag for the smaller clubs when they face Athletic Club tonight. Barcelona almost fell victim to the system in Vallecas but managed to salvage victory from the jaws of defeat through Ousmane Dembele and Luis Suarez late on.
They may have got all 3 points but Barcelona were not spared by their section of the Spanish press. Mundo Deportivo labelled them ‘gris’ (mediocre) but, as you often see when league leaders win unconvincingly, Sport went with the ‘this is how league titles are won’ stance. Although Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde was ‘delighted’ with the win, he referred to the ‘ghosts of Butarque’ where Barça were surprisingly beaten by Leganés in September. There are still weaknesses in this Barcelona team, but still they are finding a way to win.
One team who have forgotten what winning feels like are Valencia. Marcelino was praised for guiding Los Che back into the Champions League for the first time in three seasons last campaign. Since then, they’ve drawn 8 of their 11 league games so far and, after 3 successive league draws, it got even worse as they lost 1-0 at home to Girona. They are the lowest scorers in the entire league and, when you consider that they’ve got Rodrigo, Michy Batshuayi, Kevin Gameiro and Goncalo Guedes at their disposal, that’s quite a damming sight. Calls for Marcelino’s head are not far-fetched with progression in the Champions League looking like a lifeline for the Spanish manager.
Valencia haven’t won at the Mestalla since May and now languish as low as 15th in the table. But they aren’t the only ones who prefer to travel. Villarreal, Real Sociedad and Huesca are all without a win at home in the league this season. The latter was denied their first ever La Liga win at home and their first win since the opening weekend when Getafe’s Jorge Molina struck in stoppage time to equalise. La Liga’s debutants already have a mountain to climb, currently sitting rock bottom but have hope in the form of Cucho Hernández. The busy Colombian striker is certainly one to look out for at this current moment and certainly in the coming years.