Real Madrid Stay Alive in La Liga, but Away Form Needs Urgent Attention

Tim CollinsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 8, 2016

GRANADA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 07: Luka Modric of Real Madrid CF celebrates scoring their second goal during the La Liga match between Granada CF and Real Madrid CF at Estadio Nuevo Los Carmenes on February 7, 2016 in Granada, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

The reaction said it all. 

Eighty-four minutes were up on the clock at the Estadio Nuevo Los Carmenes, and Luka Modric stormed toward the corner flag. Behind him lay a ball in the back of the net, Granada goalkeeper Andres Fernandez on his knees and 10 dejected men in red and white; across his face was splashed a look of ferocity, of excitement. 

Of relief. 

This was a goal of extreme significance and everyone knew it. For more than an hour, Real Madrid had toiled against a Granada side that had channeled the good half of its split personality. From the outset, the hosts were energetic and feisty, harassing their esteemed guests while closing down space and making Madrid sweat.

A lot. 

It's often difficult to know what you're going to get from Granada, but here their plan was clear. Pressuring high, the idea was to isolate Madrid's midfielders and force turnovers that would lead to fast breaks. There was also a clear intent to make the game as choppy as possible, Granada heeding lessons from those who've recently been vanquished by Madrid. 

Indeed, back in January, when Real Madrid hammered Sporting Gijon at the Santiago Bernabeu, Sporting manager Abelardo had bemoaned his side's failure to lay a glove on Zinedine Zidane's men.

"I'm not saying we should be violent," he said, per Sid Lowe of the Guardian, after a 5-1 thrashing in which his side were four goals down after 18 minutes, "but we can't commit our first fouls in the 24th minute."

Granada's defender David Rodriguez Lomban (L) vies with Real Madrid's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo during the Spanish league football match Granada FC vs Real Madrid CF at Nuevo Los Carmenes stadium in Granada on February 7, 2016. AFP PHOTO / JORG

Granada manager Jose Ramon Sandoval was obviously listening. On Sunday night, his side fouled relentlessly; 20 times in fact, according to Even for a team that sits second in the league for fouls, that figure represented a significant increase on their season average. 

Madrid didn't like it, either. 

Their fluency disrupted, the men from the capital found fashioning chances hard work. In attack, Cristiano Ronaldo struggled for space and James Rodriguez looked short of sharpness again; in midfield, Toni Kroos wasn't allowed to be Toni Kroos as Granada got physical with him; out wide, the pacey threat of Isaac Success and Adalberto Penaranda kept full-backs Dani Carvajal and Marcelo honest. 

In the one moment Granada let up, Madrid scored through Benzema, but little else was forthcoming. And when Granada equalised through Youssef El Arabi, it had that feel about it—momentous, season-altering; perhaps even season-ending. 

Then Modric changed everything, and here, "everything" means everything. Receiving the ball from Mateo Kovacic, the 30-year-old shifted it to his right with one touch. Thump. Netting. Goal. 

"Peerless," said AS of Modric. "A gift," said Marca of his goal.

"A lifeline," said Zidane.

GRANADA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 07: Luka Modric (2ndL) of Real Madrid CF celebrates scoring their second goal with teammates Marcelo (L), Raphael Varane (2ndR) and Mateo Kovacic (R) during the La Liga match between Granada CF and Real Madrid CF at Estadio Nuevo
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

On the night, Modric was peerless, and his goal was a lifeline, but that Madrid needed the lifeline was indicative of the problems this team is having away from the Bernabeu. 

Heading into Sunday's meeting with Granada in Andalusia, Real hadn't won any of their last three away games in the league and had won only one of their last five. For the season as a whole, they'd won only four of 10 on the road, the trend having started on the opening day when they couldn't get past newly promoted Sporting. 

This is a team that hasn't been able to take its bulldozing work on its travels. At home, Madrid's goal difference this season is plus-35; away, it's plus-10. It's not just the numbers, though; it's the contrast in sensations and the nature of the displays. 

Consider Madrid's most recent away performances in La Liga: Against Real Betis, they were sloppy; against Valencia, they were chaotic; against Villarreal, they were sluggish; against Eibar, they never got going; against Sevilla, they folded; against Celta Vigo, they needed Keylor Navas to bail them out. Sunday night continued the pattern.

Afterwards, Zidane spoke of how his side needs to be able to "breathe easier" away from home, but to do so, something needs to change. At present, this is a team that's savage if opponents are the tiniest bit passive—the overawing Bernabeu tends to make them as such—but is too easily disrupted if their opponents are combative.

In their own stadiums, Madrid's rivals are finding success merely by getting in faces and being unaccommodating hosts. It needs to be more difficult than that; on the road, Madrid are lacking an alternative, a plan B or a sense of clarity in how to react to pressure. 

Taken out of their rhythm, Madrid struggle to find a way. On Sunday, Modric found one and gave them a lifeline. But if Madrid continue in this fashion away from home, those lines will quickly run out.