Real Madrid v Granada: El Derbi de la Legitimidad
Background image: Laura Hale, CC BY-SA 3.0
Matchday 8 in La Liga features a battle between the Spanish top-flight’s first and second-place teams. Real Madrid tops the Primera Division, surprising their own supporters as well as rivals and neutrals. Perhaps more surprising, there is no famous name attached to today’s match. It’s neither El Clasico nor El Derbi Madrileno. Barcelona and Atletico are further down the table. Instead, Zinedine Zidane’s Merengues face Los Rojiblancos and, apologies, I don’t mean Sevilla. Like Deportivo Alaves in 2018/19, Granada has somehow contrived to upset the natural order at least for the campaign’s early doors. Now the newly-promoted side face the all-time European champions, each with their legitimacy on the line.
If ever a campaign can be called ignominious, it’s Real Madrid’s in 2018/19. Consider the following timeline:
- 31 May 2018: Zinedine Zidane resigns as Real Madrid boss four days after winning his third Champions League title in two-and-a-half years, famously saying, “The team must keep winning.”
- 13 June 2018: Real Madrid announce that Spain manager Julen Lopetegui will succeed Zidane when the World Cup concludes.
- 13 June 2018: Outraged at not being informed of the negotiations between Lopetegui and Los Blancos, the RFEF sack their manager two days before facing Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal to begin their World Cup.
- 10 July 2018: Real Madrid sell Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus for €117 million.
- 15 August 2018: Europa League winners Atletico Madrid embarrass the CR7-light Merengues in Morocco, winning the UEFA Super Cup 4-2.
- 29 October 2018: Real Madrid sack Lopetegui after inconsistent results culminate in a 5-1 shellacking at the Camp Nou in El Clasico.
- 13 November 2018: Because La Liga rules dictate that caretakers cannot remain in charge more than 14 days, Santiago Solari is named permanent manager after winning four matches in his first fortnight at the helm.
- 11 March 2019: Real Madrid sack Solari after the Argentine loses two Clasicos on either side of a 4-1 quarterfinal Champions League defeat to Ajax at the Santiago Bernabeu that ended their three-year reign as European Champions.
- 11 March 2019: Zidane returns, keeping Los Blancos in the Champions League places while promising a summer roster overhaul. Doubters quickly point out he inherited a complete squad in his first stint and, while he proved an excellent repairman, has no credibility as a builder.
- 19 May 2019: The Merengues end the season with a second successive defeat, beaten 0-2 at the Bernabeu by Real Betis a week after succumbing 3-1 to Real Sociedad at the Anoeta. They finish third, 19 points behind champions Barcelona. The rebuild begins.
In contrast, Granada are just building. The side were not even in La Liga last term. Diego Martinez led El Grana to a runners-up position in La Segunda Division, earning promotion to the top flight. The Andalusians finished eight points behind Osasuna. Ironically, Martinez came to Andalusia from Pamplona after managing Osasuna the prior season.
Regardless of their respective finishes in 2018/19, the 38-year-old’s new club is riding much higher than his old side. Osasuna are proving stubborn with just one defeat in their first seven matches but their inability to score [5G] leaves Los Rojillos with a lone win and five draws in their other six matches. Their eight points to date keep them three above the relegation zone. Granada are finding the net, however. Thirteen goals against six conceded propelled them to the penultimate place in the table.
Worse for the home side, eight of the Rojiblancos’ 13 points come on the road. With a travelling goal surplus of five over their opponents, Martinez’s side can counterattack with the best and will make Real pay if they are not careful in possession.
The Merengues are also more effective away from the Bernabeu where they too can counterattack. Granada’s organised defence, coupled with pressure from vocal Madrilenos to boss possession, make this a perilous home tie for Zidane’s crew. Their status as La Liga’s sole unbeaten club is in greater jeopardy than their history against El Grana suggests.
While any result will contribute to Granada’s legitimacy as a competitor for the Liga title and Champions League places, Real Madrid’s abysmal 2018/19 campaign shrank their credibility and confidence like a pair of socks left in the dryer too long.
When Thibaut Courtois was substituted at half-time against Club Brugge with a reported gastrointestinal issue, midweek in the Champions League, the rumour mill churned out allegations he had in fact suffered an anxiety attack. Add to that marquee signings Eden Hazard and Luka Jovic’s inability to make the scoresheet in a combined 575 minutes played and there are doubts that Zizou can keep his squad in front of Atleti and Barca much longer. None of the three newcomers have justified their presence in the squad and Courtois has been the number one for more than a year.
Much of the pressure will be on defensive midfielder Casemiro, especially later in the match. El Grana midfielders Anthony Puertas  and Ramon Azeez  claim five of the Rojiblanco goals and, while starting 34-year-old centre-forward, Roberto Soldado has only produced one and is doubtful for the contest after taking a knock, Carlos Fernandez, 11-years his junior, has notched a pair as an impact sub. Can he further prove his worth at one of Spanish football's mightiest cathedrals?
For their part, Real have reverted to feeding a single player in attack rather than spreading the ball around. Karim Benzema is doing his best to emulate Cristiano Ronaldo with five goals and two assists in nine appearances across all competitions. Marked as Zidane’s pet in previous seasons, the Frenchman struggled with Lopetegui and Solari. He’s enjoying a revival since his patron returned but won’t be given any margin for error or dip in form by unconvinced fans and critics.
Any way you cut it, legitimacy is the prize on offer in this affair.