Whenever Real Madrid don’t win a game of football, there is always investigation and introspection, but it helps when the opposition they’ve failed to beat are of a similarly elite standard.
Wednesday night’s Champions League goalless draw with Paris Saint-Germain in the French capital was one such occasion.
However, far from focusing on the failure to record a third straight victory in the competition, it might instead be better to see the result as Real simply keeping Laurent Blanc, Zlatan Ibrahimovic et al. at arm’s length. Ahead of the return game at the Santiago Bernabeu on Nov. 3, they’ve simply got them right where they want them.
Placed in a group full of wildly differing standards, it has always been apparent it would be Real and PSG that’ll advance to the knockout stages, with the results between the two determining who would come first and who’d qualify in second place.
Minnows Malmo and a declining Shakhtar Donetsk simply can’t compete with such behemoths, as has been proved in the four combined matches the pair have played against them in Group A that produced an aggregate score of 11-0.
What Rafael Benitez would have learned from comfortably beating the Ukrainians and Swedes would have been negligible, though—certainly compared to what he would have gathered in Paris.
Although a group game, the PSG match came to resemble the first leg of a knockout tie, and in effect, it was. Real now know that by beating the same opposition at the Bernabeu, they are extremely likely to win the group.
Playing the type of opposition they can expect to face in the latter stages of the Champions League this early can only be a good thing, then. It will sharpen skills and give Benitez a sniff of the mid-to-late 2000s, when he routinely led Liverpool to deep runs in the competition.
Who knows, they might end up heading to Paris again in the months to come, but the ultimate aim—the aim that Benitez was appointed for—will be to get to Milan’s San Siro at the end of May for the final and, of course, to win it.
And things look pretty rosy in the pursuit of that ultimate goal.
Now out on his own as the Champions League’s all-time record goalscorer, Cristiano Ronaldo will be determined to maintain his advantage over Lionel Messi while the Barcelona star is injured. Sympathy for his great rival won’t have entered his head, and if Ronaldo keeps scoring, then Real will keep winning.
The other most important figure at the club is Benitez, and given that he’s proved his prowess in knockout football and is one of only 10 managers in history to have won a European trophy on three occasions—the UEFA Cup/Europa League with Valencia and Chelsea and the Champions League with Liverpool—then he too will feel himself clicking into gear the longer the competition goes on.
Meanwhile, a look elsewhere isn’t likely to elicit much fear from those at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Of Real’s main pre-tournament rivals, Bayern Munich proved they are merely a team of humans with their defeat at Arsenal, Chelsea’s season still remains resolutely on the ground and Manchester City still fail to convince in Europe. Of course, there’s Barcelona, but their group campaign is shaping up to be broadly similar to Real’s, certainly not better—and they are still missing Messi.
So with a goalscoring machine who has netted more times in the competition than anyone else, a squad featuring plenty of the faces who won the Champions League in 2014 and a manager who knows what it’s like to hold that famous trophy, Real Madrid have every right to feel confident.
The PSG result wasn’t ideal because it wasn’t a win, and that should always be the Real credo.
But it might just be seen as a useful exercise when the talking stops and the competition draws to a close in Milan next May.