La Liga's shutdown couldn’t have come at a better time for Real Madrid. In the seven games before the break brought on by the pandemic, it went out of the Copa del Rey to Real Sociedad, lost the home leg of its Champions League last-16 tie against Manchester City and dropped seven points in five league games. Crucially, though, it did beat Barcelona 2-0 in El Clasico, a result that went a long way toward its ability to claim La Liga's title on Thursday with a 2-1 victory over Villarreal.
The win was Real Madrid’s 10th in a row since football resumed in Spain. Zinedine Zidane's side hasn’t been brilliant, but it has been relentless. Barcelona, meanwhile, has suffered three draws and a loss in that same period. As it turned out, Madrid didn’t even have to beat Villarreal to seal the title with a game to spare Thursday.
Over the past two months, Sergio Ramos has arguably enjoyed the best spell even of his illustrious career. In those 10 games, Madrid has conceded only four goals. Defensively, Madrid looks solid. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois again looks assured. Karim Benzema is in a rich vein of goalscoring form. That 2-1 deficit to Man City in the Champions League doesn’t appear nearly as insurmountable as it did at the time.
How much that actually means is another issue. Nobody could claim Madrid has been fluent. This rather is Madrid in brutal mode, the same way it won those three successive Champions League titles under Zidane: keeping it tight, battling hard and assuming that at some point one of its array of brilliant players will do something brilliant. It may not appeal to those who like to see football as a battle of competing philosophies but, at least in short bursts, it can be extremely effective.
“Even as someone who prefers to play exciting attacking football, the defensive aspect is the most important thing right now,” Zidane said. “And we have a big advantage in that we have a great defense, but above all, every player is committed to what we are doing. Defending is not about four or five players, it's down to everyone.”
Perhaps in a world in which, at elite level, defending is at a low ebb, to be a team that has solidity is enough to give Madrid an advantage. At least there is some sort of structure and coherence, which is more than can be said at Barcelona at the moment. Many of the problems at Madrid still remain, the most obvious of them being Gareth Bale, who increasingly seems like an ex-footballer. Against Alaves, he pretended to be asleep in the stands, and then, having been criticized for not paying sufficient attention to the game, he mimicked watching the match against Granada with a binoculars gesture–all of which suggested somebody who has essentially given up on the club.
Bale has played only 1,261 minutes in all competitions this season, less than in any previous campaign since he joined Madrid in 2013. He turned 31 on Thursday and has two years remaining on his contract. It’s hard to imagine another club being prepared to offer anything like the $20 million annual salary he is reportedly on. Other than playing for Wales, it’s not even clear Bale much cares about football any more. There can be little doubt Madrid will do its best to offload him in the transfer window, for the finances his departure would open up if nothing else. Zidane’s irritation at constantly being asked about the issue is clear.
And then there’s the far wider question which may become a little clearer in that game against Man City at the beginning of next month. Is this Madrid actually that good? It’s only lost three games in the league this season, but nobody could claim it has been playing vintage football. There’s been little about this edition that will gloriously be recalled in a decade or two. This is the pattern that repeats across Europe: a big club winning the league almost by default, by virtue of its size, and because, in this case, its one rival is in shambles.
This was a season that promised much in Spain. Even in the early spring, when lockdown came, there had been much to enjoy in the form of Real Sociedad and Sevilla. But the break reasserted the old order. To point out how exceptional this run of 10 straight wins has been is not really the point. Even in a season in which neither of the big two has been anywhere near its best, they both will end up 10-15 points or so clear of their nearest competitors. And that means that, as with Bayern's Bundesliga title and Juventus's likely forthcoming one in Serie A, it all feels a little inevitable and futile.