Real Madrid’s suddenly blatantly clear issues in front of goal cost them badly on Sunday evening, when a 0-0 at home to Athletic Bilbao allowed Barcelona to spend Spain’s winter break two points clear at the top of the Liga table.
Madrid hit the woodwork three times at the Santiago Bernabeu, but could not find a breakthrough even with six minutes of added time. Coming after Wednesday’s goalless Clasico at the Camp Nou it meant two consecutive 0-0s for Madrid in La Liga for the first time since March 2016.
Zinedine Zidane’s side dominated possession and territory against an Athletic team who were clearly happy to sit back and aim for what turned out to be (amazingly) just the Basques’ second point earned at the Bernabeu over the last 15 years.
Toni Kroos hit the crossbar from five yards in the first half, via Simon’s head. After the break Los Blancos substitutes Nacho Fernandez and Luka Jovic also saw headers bounce back with the keeper beaten. Madrid had 20 shots at goal, eight on target, but really visiting goalkeeper Unai Simon did not have that many difficult saves to make.
Athletic had even maybe the better chances, with Inaki Williams bringing a top save low at his near post from Thibaut Courtois, and Eder Militao very lucky not to give away a penalty after Athletic left back Yuri had got in behind him.
The Bernabeu got increasingly antsy at Athletic wasting time through the second half, but the visitors’ three centre-backs dealt pretty well with Madrid’s succession of crosses into the box from deep areas, especially after Jovic and emergency centre-forward Sergio Ramos joined Benzema in attack.
Madrid’s midfield looked tired after recent exertions and in need of the winter break. The final whistle confirmed that goalscoring really is now a problem for Zinedine Zidane’s side – who have drawn blanks in five of their 18 La Liga games so far in 2019/20.
“I’m a bit upset given the game we played and having so many chances,” Zidane told the post-game news conference. “But that is football, if you have chances, you have to take them, and we’ve not done that in these last three games. But we should not get down about it. We should rest now and return much better to start 2020.”
The former galactico was not entirely wrong, but Madrid’s problems in front of goal go back longer than just the last three games. 33 goals so far in 2019/20 La Liga is 14 less than Barca’s 47, and much closer to fifth placed Real Sociedad’s 32 and 10th placed Villarreal’s 31.
Barca had much less problem finding the net while brushing away Alaves 4-1 at the Camp Nou on Saturday, with all of Antoine Griezmann, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez on the scoresheet for the third time in the Blaugrana’s last seven games in all competitions.
Messi will spend Christmas leading La Liga’s Pichichi goal-scoring race with 13, despite missing the first four games through injury. Suarez  and Griezmann  are also regularly helping out.
There were signs too against Alaves that Barca’s new trident were working well in harmony, with Griezmann now looking much more comfortable sharing a field with Messi. The link-up between the pair was special as their team broke 90 yards from an Alaves corner and almost scored. Suarez also set up Griezmann for his goal, a really well taken strike on his right foot from the edge of the box.
Madrid ‘s attack does not look so fruitful currently. Benzema is second in the Pichichi standings with 12, but their next highest scorer is defender Ramos with three, including two penalties. 13 other Blancos players have found the net in La Liga this season, but none more than twice.
Zidane gave another start on Sunday evening to youngsters Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo, and both had some bright moments in the first half before fading out of the game. The €100m pair of Brazilian teenagers have just three goals between them in 1,095 minutes of La Liga playing time this season, while they understandably take time to find their feet at this level.
Sunday saw the Bernabeu decide against whistling when Bale replaced Rodrygo with half an hour remaining, knowing they needed somebody to find the net. The Welshman had a couple of half chances, but both shots missed the target, and he has not now scored for his club since September.
€60m summer signing Jovic was maybe unlucky with the header off the post late on, and fortune has definitely not favoured the Serbian since arriving at the Bernabeu. One goal in his first 14 Madrid appearances is not what the club were expecting, although again he is still just 21 and needs more time to settle in.
The burden was again on Benzema to make the breakthrough against Athletic, and the Frenchman had seven attempts over the 90 minutes, four on target, but none really close to beating Simon. He was one of a few Madrid players who look like they need the winter break to recharge the batteries, which is hardly surprising given he has played 1947 of the team’s total 2130 minutes so far this term.
Benzema is Madrid’s only goalscorer over their last three La Liga games – all draws – and even that needed a vital contribution from goalkeeper Courtois coming up for a corner in the 94th minute at Valencia. Asked on Spanish TV on Sunday evening if the team were missing some ‘punch’ up front, the Belgian accepted the question before correcting himself.
“Maybe a bit,” Courtois said. “But I don’t believe we are a team who can’t score. In Valencia, at the Camp Nou, and today we had chances to kill off the game. We’ve had other games scoring three, four or five goals.”
Madrid can also point to injuries having seriously disrupted their attacking plans this season. New €100m galactico Eden Hazard is on his second relatively long injury absence, while Marco Asensio has missed the entire campaign due to a cruciate tear. But Benzema is the squad’s only real specialist goalscorer – and their season would be in huge trouble were a player who last week turned 32 to pick up any serious fitness problems himself.
Being held scoreless so often is a new problem for Zidane to overcome. During his first term in charge Madrid went a world record 73 games finding the net at least once between April 2016 and September 2017. Although that was when they had a certain Portuguese wearing the number seven shirt, and also when they had a very useful habit of scoring very late goals to win games they had not played all that well in.
Madrid president Florentino Perez spent big last summer but the squad’s new array of attacking talent is still just potential rather than reality. Asked on Saturday whether Madrid could remedy the situation by adding a new goalscorer in January, Zidane was adamant: “I don’t think we need to sign another forward, absolutely not.”
The hope at the Bernabeu is that Hazard, especially, will get back fit again soon and start adding to his one goal across his first 13 Madrid games. Wednesday’s Clasico showed that Zidane’s side can more than match the Catalans in most elements of the game. But asking Benzema to outscore Barca’s trident is never going to work over the course of the season for Madrid.