There is no better time for Real Madrid to face their toughest tests of the season, with Los Blancos unbeaten in their last six games.
Real Madrid are hitting their stride at the right time. The Madrid derby arrives in 2019 sandwiched between El Clasico in the Copa del Rey and a Champions League first leg against Ajax, but Santiago Solari’s men have rarely looked more up to the challenge across a difficult and arduous campaign than now.
Atletico Madrid’s away defeat against Real Betis last weekend will have lifted spirits further across the Spanish capital, but Saturday still brings with it the fact that Diego Simeone’s side are yet to suffer defeat at the Wanda Metropolitano in all competitions in 2018-19.
Short-lived boss Julen Lopetegui had little luck against Los Colchoneros, suffering a 4-2 European Super Cup extra-time defeat back at the dawn of the season, before a 0-0 stalemate at the Bernabeu in late September saw Real drop more points against their noisy neighbours. Since Lopetegui’s sacking in the wake of Barcelona’s 5-1 thrashing of his side in La Liga, Solari has unquestionably taken some steps forward – unless you ask Isco.
Confidence is a factor that cannot be underplayed at Real. It cannot be quantified by data or crunched as a hard statistic, but Solari’s side are far more assured of themselves both collectively and as individuals since he took over. Just as Zinedine Zidane worried most about the dressing room and asking for better performance levels from his personnel, the Argentine has proven very astute.
Los Blancos have won their last four consecutive La Liga matches, taking three points against the likes of Real Betis, Sevilla, Espanyol and Alaves. In doing so, they have made up ground on second-placed Atleti and now have the chance to leapfrog their cross-town rivals at the weekend.
Luka Modric’s form had dipped under Lopetegui, this after a busy summer, while Marcelo needed to be replaced due to his dismal form but continued to be afforded opportunities. Solari has handed youth product Sergio Reguilon the chance to make the left-back role his own – a task that the 22-year-old has relished in recent months.
Dani Ceballos has grabbed several games by the scruff of the neck, Marcos Llorente has been brought in from the cold and only Isco has felt himself pushed to the margins. Youth prospects Federico Valverde, Cristo Gonzalez and Javier Sanchez have been exposed to more minutes than they may have expected back in the summer. It feels healthier and happier in the white half of Madrid.
Solari is not visionary, nor is he a pioneer. A super sub in his playing heyday and an average tactician after taking the required steps into coaching, the 42-year-old has stepped into the interim void with aplomb. Any issues of unity have been resolved and a happy camp is one from which little ‘insider information’ emanates.
He has brought back some togetherness and enough of a platform from which players can impress again. He says the right things in press conferences, the things that Real Madrid fans want to hear about a club of such stature with its ingrained expectation and intense demands.
There has been no tactical invention, instead maintaining Real Madrid’s long-standing preference for a 4-3-3. Benzema leads the line and has been in terrific form in 2019, creating plenty for those around him and doubling his tally in La Liga in comparison to last campaign.
Vinicius Jr started the campaign off as a B team player. The Br azilian starlet was turning out in Spain’s third tier, but has since been returned to the rightful place for his development – a top league. After flitting in and out of squads under Lopetegui, the 18-year-old has been one of Solari’s key men.
During Los Blancos’ 2-0 loss against Real Sociedad in La Liga, Vinicius was the sole threat. Asked to create the vast majority of his side’s chances from the left wing, he would cut infield and stretch his legs to try to get some joy from a visiting back four who were exceptionally well organised.
Incredibly quick and with agility to match, the teenager is a very slippy customer and has the power to destabilise opposition defences’ best-laid plans. Extremely comfortable on the ball while on the move, much of what has been exciting about Real Madrid’s football under Solari has come from Vinicius’ swashbuckling antics from the left touchline. His decision-making is not perfect, and nor should it be at his age, but his talent is undeniable.
Solari has managed to coax Real Madrid from disaster to an even keel, dispelling fear and replacing it with tentative optimism. Victory in the Madrid derby on Saturday would ensure that Los Blancos reassert their local dominance ahead of a busy month that includes a trip to Amsterdam and two Clasicos.