La Liga: What Has Happened to Real Madrid This Season?

Ryan BaileyFeatured ColumnistDecember 17, 2012

Six months ago, Jose Mourinho was the toast of the Spanish capital.

Following victory at Athletic Bilbao's San Mames stadium, Real Madrid had secured their 32nd league title in emphatic style. Few need reminding that Los Blancos finished the season with a record number of points, wins and goals scored.

Such lofty domestic achievements seem like a distant memory now as Madrid languish outside of the comfort of La Liga's top two, some thirteen points off the pace of fierce rivals Barcelona.

Following yet another disappointing draw with Espanyol over the weekend, Mou's men have now dropped fifteen points in the league. Last season, they dropped only fourteen points all season.

Barcelona, meanwhile, have only dropped two points in this campaign, in the thrilling October Clasico match.

A team worth nearly half a billion Euros—managed by a man who has won seven league titles in ten years and which features the world's most expensive player—is out of the title race before Christmas. Even The Special One admits it's over.

Furthermore, they face an uphill battle in the Copa del Rey Round of 16 second leg, needing to overcome a 2-1 deficit when Celta Vigo visit the Bernabeu in January.

What exactly has happened to Los Merengues in the past six months?

A number of factors can be attributed to their poor domestic form. Ask any staunch Madridista and they will probably tell you it is all down to Jose Mourinho's focus on Europe.

We are led to believe that the Champions League is the Portuguese manager's only concern this season and that he cannot achieve closure unless he wins a domestic and European title in every league he works in. (That he failed to win the European Cup with Chelsea may be the primary motivation for his desire to return to the Premier League.)

Even Madrid's players are towing this party line. Last week, captain Iker Casillas told a Spanish TV station that given the choice of being 25 points behind in the league and winning "La Decima" (the club's tenth European Cup) he would take it.

Putting all of one's eggs in a Champions League basket is a very risky strategy, but a mediocre domestic campaign can be teamed with European triumph—just ask Chelsea.

Madrid have also been stunted by an unfortunate succession of significant injuries, particularly in defense. Thanks to the sidelining of players like Fabio Coentrao, Alvaro Arbeloa and Marcelo, Mourinho has been forced to tinker at the back.

On several occasions—and before he picked up an injury—on-loan midfielder Michael Essien has been thrown into the left-back slot, with mixed results. Without Marcelo racing up the left flank since October, Madrid have certainly lost some of their attacking flair.

Further up the field, the absences of Sami Khedira, Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema have given The Special One selection headaches at various points in the season.

In attack, under-performance appears to have been a key issue too. Injury permitting, Higuain and Benzema have endured patchy form, while Cristiano Ronaldo has allowed Messi and Falcao to pull away from him in the top goalscorer rankings since his "sadness."

It is a damning indictment of Madrid's attacking prowess that Lionel Messi has scored the same amount of league goals as Ronaldo, Benzema, Higuain and Morata combined.

Off-the-pitch issues may also be playing their part in Madrid's troubled campaign. We have heard much this season about Mourinho's strained relationship with Florentino Perez and his clash with one or two of the inflated egos in the dressing room.

Mou is said to dislike the over-politicized nature of the Real Madrid machine and has been happy to field questions about his future career plans. Perhaps he is entirely focused on a European Cup campaign, or perhaps he is simply enduring a torrid ride until the end of the season, when the can find pastures new.

Either way, Perez's statement of support for Mourinho this week is the kind of gesture that has been the kiss of death for many other managers.

Much like Borussia Dortmund, Madrid are continuing to mount a serious European campaign while falling away in the domestic title race. If Jose Mourinho finishes this season without holding the Champions League trophy aloft, Florentino Perez will almost certainly be negotiating the terms of a new manager over the summer.