Real Madrid remain 16 points behind their arch-rivals, FC Barcelona, in the title race, and only the staunchest of Madrid supporters will believe they still have a chance of retaining their league title.
Madrid have had a difficult season so far, with a number of disappointing results contributing to their large point deficit. However, there are aspects of Madrid’s game that are still incredibly good and in which they edge even the steamroller Barcelona have become this season.
Here are four key areas where Los Blancos still have the upper hand on the Blaugrana.
For many Madridistas, the image of Cristiano Ronaldo hanging in the air, as if performing a levitation trick, dwarfing Patrice Evra and just about to send the ball crashing into the Manchester United net, will remain imprinted on their mind for many a year.
Depending on next month’s second leg result, it may well be long remembered by Manchester United fans as well.
United fans won’t be alone in dreading the aerial threat of Ronaldo and company this season, as Madrid have made it one of their principal attacking threats.
This season in La Liga more than 10 percent of Madrid’s goals have come from headers, from players as varied as Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, Pepe and Angel Di María. In stark contrast, Barcelona have only scored a solitary header in the entire league, through Carles Puyol.
Both Madrid’s squad and their style of play largely contribute to the constant aerial threat they apply to defending teams. In their last match nine out of the 10 outfield players were taller than 5'9"; for Barcelona’s last game only two of the ten outfield players were.
Add in the fact Los Blancos prioritize swift counter-attacking football to long, possession-based build ups, and it is easy to see why and how Madrid have become such a strong aerial force.
Ask any manager down from the lower leagues to the top division, and more often than not, they will tell you a team must be built upon keeping clean sheets. Although the league table shows that it doesn’t guarantee success, Madrid have been managing to keep clean sheets way more often than their arch-rivals from Catalonia.
So far this season, Madrid have managed 10 clean sheets in the league, while Barcelona have only managed five. In fact only Atlético Madrid have managed more than Los Blancos this season (12), while Manuel Pellegrini’s Malaga have kept the same amount.
The key absences Madrid have had, with the likes of Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Pepe out from their lineup for lengthy suspensions or injuries, have led the team to tinker extensively with its defensive lineup. That they would manage to concede twice as many clean sheets and five less goals than Barcelona in the league so far prove that they have coped brilliantly.
The downside is clearly it has not been enough for Madrid to seriously challenge for the title, a fact easily explained by their goal-scoring numbers rather than those conceded.
However with key knockout ties coming thick and fast in both Champions League and the Spanish Cup, keeping their defense strong might just be enough to get Madrid through.
Perhaps the most recognisable trait of José Mourinho’s Real Madrid is their capacity to hit opponents on the break. Rarely has a team excelled as much in transforming defensive phases of play into goal-scoring opportunities in so little time.
According to stats from Whoscored.com, Real Madrid have scored 13% of their goals from counter attacks this season, while Barcelona haven’t scored any.
Madrid’s strategy to bet on counter attacks has been largely effective thanks to their quick wingers and full-backs like Angel Di Maria and Marcelo, coupled with the vision and passing skills of Mesut Ozil and Xabi Alonso.
Of course the focus of these counter attacks is almost invariably their talisman striker Cristiano Ronaldo, who is capable of covering distances on the pitch more akin to track and field competitions than football (see video taking into account that Usain Bolt won gold in the 2012 Olympics with a time of 9.63 seconds for 100m).
Finally Madrid also hold at least one strong advantage over Barcelona off the pitch: They have near-bottomless funds at their disposal.
Under Florentino Perez, Madridistas have been treated to the cream of the world’s best footballers.
These players span from the early galactico era with the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo or David Beckham to the current one of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Kaka. Some signings have proven to be disappointing: Kaka never making it properly and Luka Modric not getting many chances to prove his worth are two examples of this.
But that seems almost irrelevant to the Florentino Perez, president of Real Madrid, as invariably when a big name is on the market, Madrid seem in prominent position to claim it.
With José Mourinho most likely to leave Los Blancos at the end of this season, the incoming coach knows he will have huge funds to finance his new project.
With the likes of Gareth Bale and Radamel Falcao most likely available, you have a feeling that Madrid will once again be a key player in the summer transfer market.