Real Madrid’s need for Kylian Mbappé on show against Leipzig

MADRID — If Kylian Mbappé‘s Champions League masterclass for Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday had Real Madrid fans dreaming about the future, Madrid’s limp 1-1 draw with RB Leipzig a day later — narrowly scraping through to the quarterfinals 2-1 on aggregate — brought them crashing back down to earth.

This was a worryingly flat round-of-16 performance from Madrid, offering little in attack and looking vulnerable in defence. A team with more quality and cooler heads than Leipzig — who had 20 shots to Madrid’s 11 — might have made them pay for it. A major improvement will be required if Madrid are to challenge the likes of Manchester City in this competition this season.

On the bright side, there’s Jude Bellingham. This was his first Champions League knockout match for Madrid after missing the first leg in Germany, and he provided the moment of the game with a perceptive pass for Vinícius Júnior to open the scoring. Six Champions League appearances for Madrid, and Bellingham has scored or assisted in each one, for a total of four goals and four assists in Europe this season.

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The pre-match atmosphere at the Santiago Bernabeu was quiet. Madrid’s 1-0 lead from the first leg on Feb. 13 meant that this time, no trademark epic comeback was required; the team simply had to protect, or add to, that lead. That was reflected in a conservative team picked by coach Carlo Ancelotti. Bellingham and Vinicius were joined by Federico Valverde in a front three — with Bellingham operating through the middle — ahead of Aurélien Tchouaméni, Toni Kroos and Eduardo Camavinga in midfield.

It didn’t work. Madrid found it difficult to create chances in the first half, and the game’s best opportunities fell to the visitors. Goalkeeper Andriy Lunin saved well from Xavi Simons, before Loïs Openda fired a good chance just wide. Long before half-time there were expectant whistles from the Bernabeu crowd, demanding more from their team. Bellingham’s position as a “false nine” was limiting the team’s attacking threat, with no first-half shots on target. A change at the interval saw Rodrygo replace Camavinga, joining Bellingham and Vinicius in attack.

There was more danger from Leipzig early in the second half, with Lunin recovering well to claim the ball from Openda after racing off his line, while Vinicius was fortunate to receive only a yellow card for an off-the-ball shove of defender Willi Orbán. Still, Bellingham could have given Madrid the lead after an hour. His shot looked destined for the bottom corner before it was inadvertently blocked by Rodrygo. Three minutes later, with Madrid improving, Rodrygo had a shot saved by keeper Péter Gulácsi.

Bellingham’s invention made the breakthrough. Released by Kroos in the 65th minute, the England midfielder burst forwards, delaying his pass until the last moment to find Vinicius, through on goal. The Brazilian finished with his first touch. In the celebrations, he pointed at Bellingham, urging the crowd to recognise his contribution as the goal’s architect.

That should have been that, but four minutes later, Leipzig were level, with Orban beating Nacho Fernandez to David Raum‘s cross to head past Lunin. That meant for a nervy last 20 minutes, as Madrid defended a one-goal lead in the tie. Dani Olmo even hit the crossbar in the 92nd minute, inches away from forcing extra time.

Ultimately, Madrid are in the quarterfinals, and that’s what matters. They’ve belayed underwhelming overall displays to go all the way in this competition before, as they did in 2022. But a look at the team’s performances over the last two months reveals a worrying trend. Leaving aside their comprehensive 4-0 demolition of Girona in LaLiga on Feb. 10, they haven’t been playing well. It’s now three draws in their last four games in all competitions, and their two wins since beating Girona have been by just one goal.

Bellingham’s two-game domestic suspension, which would keep him out until March 31 unless an appeal is successful, won’t help. Vinicius is scoring goals — this was his third in two games — but he needs support. Rodrygo, so often important in the Champions League but benched against Leipzig, has scored once in the last two months. In LaLiga, Madrid’s seven-point lead at the top of the table should be enough to get them over the line, but in the Champions League they’ll need more.

Mbappé might be incoming this summer, but this Madrid team could do with some of his magic sooner than that.