Abu Dhabi: The Fifa Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi comes at just the right time for Real Madrid to jump-start their flailing season, although the UAE hasn’t previously had a revitalising effect on the Spanish giants.
Three years ago in December 2014, Los Blancos lost 4-2 to AC Milan in a winter-break friendly at the Sevens Stadium in Dubai which — although an unofficial fixture — saw them then go on to lose their next game 2-1 away to Valencia in Spain, ending a record winning run of 22 games across all competitions.
The visit here didn’t have the effect Real were hoping for. They went on to finish second in La Liga, losing in the semi-finals of the Uefa Champions League before Carlo Ancelotti was sacked.
Form couldn’t be more different coming into their latest UAE outing, but this time their players will be looking for a reverse fortune from their desert soirée.
Zinedine Zidane’s outfit are currently fourth in La Liga, eight points behind leaders Barcelona, having suffered their worst start to a season since 2008.
Defeats to Real Betis and Girona, including four draws — the most recent of which, away to Atletico Bilbao, was just last weekend — have left Zizou’s men with just 28 points from their first 14 games, out of a possible 42.
It’s a far cry from the type of run that brought them four titles last season, during the best campaign in their 115-year history — in what was remarkably only Zidane’s first full season in charge.
But down to earth with a bang, if ever they needed a confidence boost to reignite belief among the players it’s now, in a tournament they have only once failed to win in three appearances, making it a virtually guaranteed pick-me-up for the side. (Real won the Club World Cup in 2014 and 2016 but finished third in 2000).
They are already through to the knockout phase of the Uefa Champions League, ahead of Wednesday’s hosting of Borussia Dortmund, despite earlier losing 3-1 away to Tottenham Hotspur.
But if they now go on to lose El Clasico at home to Barcelona on December 23, they will be 11 points behind the Catalans at the halfway stage of the season and almost certainly out of the title race even before the opportunity to replenish in the January transfer window arises.
Before that, of course, they have Sevilla at home on Saturday and Leganes away at a date to be decided due to their Fifa Club World Cup exploits, with the semi-final on December 13 and final on December 16.
Winning their third Fifa Club World Cup, and Zidane’s second since taking charge in January 2016, will definitely help restore confidence ahead of that pivotal Barca tie.
However, the Fifa Club World Cup could also come as an unwelcome distraction at an already busy time of year, in a season where never has so much been at stake so early on in a campaign for Real.
Although the trophy will be viewed as a gimme for them, the opposite is also true. Real are at their most vulnerable and preoccupied at the moment, and if ever they are going to lose the tournament it’s now — making this possibly one of the most open editions to date.
The likes of Brazil’s Gremio, who got here by winning last month’s Copa Libertadores, will fancy their chances against the Uefa Champions League holders, as will on-form AFC Champions League winners Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan and Caf Champions League victors Wydad Casablanca of Morocco, both of whom also secured their respective prizes to qualify just last month.
Whether tired from those exploits or buoyed by the glory, all three will present a threat over and above Real, UAE champions Al Jazira and Concacaf Champions League winners Pachuca of Mexico, all of whom are here by virtue of what they achieved last season.
As a back-to-back Uefa Champions League winning coach, who has already won seven trophies since taking charge just 24 months ago, Zidane shouldn’t feel at threat of his job, and at any normal club he wouldn’t be.
But this is Real Madrid, and although he might survive the initial embarrassment of defeat here, he might not be able to wrestle Real out of the spiral decline it would cause.
The cataclysmic dent in pride such a defeat would spark would be unthinkable ahead of the season-changing El Clasico. And much like Ancelotti after Real’s last UAE sojourn, Zidane too might be left looking for other options.