Real Madrid need Copa, UCL titles to forget LaLiga failure

Turns out Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti was right again when discussing the LaLiga race.

“The difference between us and Barcelona isn’t 11 points,” Ancelotti said on Monday. By Thursday that was true: it’s 14.

The European champions are not the biggest team in Spain right now; they’re not even the second biggest after Atletico Madrid overtook them on goal differential by scoring five against Cadiz on Wednesday. That’s not so unusual — stay like this and Real’s neighbours will have finished above them four times in the past six years — the question is how much it matters.

The obvious answer is: a lot. Or it should be. The actual answer might start to take shape on Saturday night in Seville when Real Madrid face Osasuna in the final of the Copa del Rey. And when the first leg of the Champions League semifinal with Manchester City comes to a close next Tuesday, we’ll be closer to knowing.

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A definitive answer will take another week; the consequences might be a little longer in becoming clear.

After defeat at Real Sociedad earlier this week, Nacho Fernandez insisted that if at the start of the season Madrid were offered the chance to be in this same position, they would take it.

“We would have signed up for it,” he said, only to pause for a moment and add: “Well, not in the league.”

And yet even then they might have done. Madrid have conceded multiple goals in their past three league matches: four against Girona, two against Almeria and two against Real Sociedad. They have lost three of the past six, have lost four of the past eight.

The first of those defeats was against Barcelona on March 19, which may well be the reason the others have followed. Barça’s lead no longer matters because it has become so big — that’s the theory, anyway. That night, Franck Kessie‘s goal effectively ended the title race — at least that’s what Madrid thought — and not without justification. There was nothing left to fight for. Not here, anyway.

Nacho was asked on Thursday if the players’ minds were not in it: “I’d be lying if I said otherwise.”

There were some who were not there in body, let alone spirit: Karim Benzema, Vinicius Junior, Eduardo Camavinga, Luka Modric. When they had been beaten in Girona, Benzema had also been missing. So had Thibaut Courtois. Had they still been in the title race, it is hard to believe that the absences would have been the same. Hard to imagine the attitude being this way, either.

So that’s all right, then.

Is it? The frustration is unavoidable, both short term and season-long, and watching Atletico go past isn’t great. Watching Barcelona since the Clasico — two 0-0 draws, a defeat at Rayo, 1-0 wins over Atletico and Osasuna — suggested that maybe the league race wasn’t already over, that pressure could have been applied, an opportunity lost because it wasn’t expected. Just the past six games alone have cost Real nine points. Had they won them all, Barcelona’s lead would be five, game very definitely on.

(Asterisk alert here: maybe Barcelona would have played differently too had they not thought it was done).

It also left a lingering feeling that, as Ancelotti said, the real difference wasn’t 11 points. More to the point, that it really shouldn’t have been. Not just “why did we give in so soon?” but “how did we get in a position to give in so soon, and against this team?” This is not just a late-season collapse, no justification, the old “didn’t want to play anyway.”

Which is not to say that Barcelona’s point total should be overlooked — having 82 this early is seriously impressive — but look at Madrid’s league season and the simple truth is they weren’t good enough. Not just now, but for most of the season. They have not won three games in a row since October. They have won only half of their games since the World Cup.

You can lose, but not like this. Unless you have something big to take its place.

For Ancelotti, some of the damage is done — seeing Atletico go past stings, not competing in the league irritates — and he knows that at boardroom level and beyond there have always been doubters, those who dismiss him as “only” a man-manager.

That much was made clear by that moment before the Champions League quarterfinal match against Chelsea when he delivered one last message. A reminder that his team is “well-worked” and that “if we have the good fortune to win the Copa del Rey this season, this team will have won every trophy possible in two years. There are some teams that do not win that in a lifetime.”

And so the Copa completes the collection. It is also one that they would have won by beating Barcelona 4-0 in the semifinal, which gives it greater value.

Meanwhile, another European Cup completes them. This is what has always mattered most. There are coaches who tell stories of the president telling them it was all that mattered, forget the league.

Thing is, that means you have to win it. The Copa del Rey too. Win nothing and, as Ancelotti keeps being reminded and keeps denying, citing his contract, coaches tend not to survive. Win just the Copa, where they are of course clear favourites, and it’s not so different. Win both cups, and that league can be lost somewhere, forgotten about.

Not only is that difficult — Osasuna will be worthy opponents and City are City — but the risk might be seeing this collapse only in the context of a league title that has escaped them, a team prioritising the cups. Not seeing the flaws, the form, the things that could be carried forward.

“Eder Militao needs to wake up … and fast,” said Ancelotti of his defender’s crucial error after the Real Sociedad loss. They all do.

So, is coming off a loss the best way to prepare?

“No,” Ancelotti conceded, “it’s not the best. Defeats always concern. A very important moment is coming and we have to be ready.”

Do league results matter? They do if they’re repeated in the cups. If these next two games set Madrid up for a bus parade come June, two more trophies on board, no one will care.

After Madrid beat Barcelona in the Copa semis, Ancelotti insisted that his team had reached their optimum temperature; things though have cooled since. Perhaps that’s saving energy, perhaps it’s inevitable, perhaps it doesn’t matter at all, perhaps it’s even a good thing. Perhaps they can flick the switch.

“I’m convinced we will see a different team,” Ancelotti said. “The squad is ready to win the cup and reach the [Champions League] final. Motivation is not like a light you turn on and off, but this team is pretty special.”