It seemed highly unlikely even just two weeks ago, but could Real Madrid have sneaked their way into an improbable title challenge?
Results this weekend brought them to within six points of leaders Barcelona, and Madrid suddenly seem to have their mojo back.
Since their 2-0 home defeat to Real Sociedad at the turn of the year, Los Blancos have won five La Liga games in a row, including Saturday’s 3-1 win at the home of noisy neighbours Atlético de Madrid, which saw them leapfrog the hosts into second place.
They were down in fifth at the start of that run, and as is often the case at Madrid when a few results don’t go their way, they had the air of a team in crisis.
The pre-season departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane were still being keenly felt, the disastrous reign of Julen Lopetegui was fresh in the mind, and previously imperious players such as Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos suddenly seemed mediocre. New manager Santi Solari’s public falling-out with Isco contributed to a sense of dissatisfaction with the interim manager, whose good start had given way to some patchy form at home and in Europe.
A tricky trip to Real Betis followed the embarrassing defeat to La Real, and a win was sorely needed to get their season back on track. A last-gasp free-kick from Dani Ceballos secured a vital 2-1 victory at the Villamarín, and from that moment on it felt like a corner had been turned.
The confidence that eluded them earlier in the season now seems to have been restored. Karim Benzema is playing arguably his best football of the past two seasons, Modrić has improved no end and the indomitable Lucas Vázquez has been a key figure in the Madrid revival.
The faith Solari has placed in youngsters such as Vinícius Junior and Sergio Reguilón has been repaid with interest. Vinícius is shining on the stage that Lopetegui felt was too high for him, and is one of the most exciting prospects in world football right now, while academy product Reguilón’s form has been so good he is currently keeping Marcelo out of the side.
The upturn in form for Los Blancos has happily coincided with a downturn for their rivals.
Atlético have now lost two on the bounce, with a 1-0 reverse at Real Betis preceding their defeat in el derbi madrileño.
Barcelona, meanwhile, have also dropped points in consecutive games; a 2-2 draw with Valencia at Camp Nou followed by a 0-0 stalemate against Athletic Club at San Mamés, which could easily have been a defeat were it not for the heroics of goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen.
These slip-ups have given Real Madrid a glimmer of hope, and the upcoming clásico at the Bernabéu on March 2 has now taken on huge importance for both teams. Real Madrid will see it as an opportunity to narrow the gap and put pressure on Barcelona, while Barça dare not lose and potentially allow Madrid back in.
On the face of it, Barcelona are still very much in the box seat. Their advantage may have been narrowed, but a six-point gap is not to be sniffed at, and it is unlikely that Real Madrid will better Barcelona’s 5-1 victory in the upcoming clásico and overturn their head-to-head deficit.
But Real Madrid suddenly have the wind in their sails, and Barcelona are having to look over their shoulders for the first time this season.
Only Lionel Messi and Sergio Ramos remain on either side from the 2006-07 season in which Madrid – having been written off all season – crept up out of nowhere to take the title on the final day, but memories of that remarkable season will still inspire hope in the capital and fear in Catalonia.
Barcelona have injuries to key players in Arthur and Samuel Umtiti, and there is far more pressure on them as leaders than on Madrid as chasers.
If Madrid keep up their current form, the pressure on Barça will only increase, and it will be a huge psychological test for Ernesto Valverde and his team. The next few weeks will be crucial. Will Barcelona see off the challenge, or can Madrid make it a two-horse race to the finish?