JANUARY 9 — It’s becoming increasingly apparent that Real Madrid are in trouble, and that major surgery rather than minor tinkering will be required to bring the reigning Spanish and European champions back into contention for major honours.
Sunday’s 2-2 draw at mid-table Celta Vigo — an entirely fair result considering the balance of play — left Los Blancos no less than 16 points behind leaders Barcelona, and although they do have a game in hand that particular mountain is already looking unclimbable.
Conceding their La Liga crown would leave Madrid with just one serious trophy to play for this season, the Champions League, so all is not lost yet.
But time is very much running out for Zinedine Zidane’s men to find their form, because they have been handed perhaps the worst possible draw in next month’s last 16 two-legged knockout round: emerging powerhouse Paris St Germain.
With their magnificent front trio of Edinson Cavani, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar combining beautifully (did you see Neymar’s goal against Rennes this weekend?... wow!), the French club are scoring goals for fun and on the current form of both teams they would have an extremely good chance of knocking out Madrid with a fair degree of comfort.
So there is very little time — just over a month — for Real to get themselves back on track, and considering their consistently poor play for more than four months, at the moment that’s looking pretty unlikely.
If the worst happens and Real’s European defence is ended by PSG, Zidane would be on very thin ice.
He has enjoyed outstanding success during his two years in charge, winning back-to-back Champions League crowns as well as last season’s La Liga title, but at the Bernabeu memories are brutally short and the French coach would probably be given little chance to put things right.
There are many theories about what exactly has happened to the team since the end of last season, when they were looking more or less unbeatable, but the only honest assessment is that nobody really knows why they are playing so badly — not even Zidane, who basically admitted as much in the aftermath of Sunday’s draw in Vigo.
One thing for certain, though, is that the squad desperately needs refreshing in attack.
Last summer’s decision to sell Alvaro Morata before a replacement had been secured is looking sillier by the week, especially in the context of the ongoing decline being experienced by long-time starter Karim Benzema, who is currently out injured.
The other forwards in the squad are young and unproven Borja Mayoral, who looks a decent prospect but certainly not good enough to lead the line for one of the strongest teams in the world, along with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.
Ronaldo is now a very limited player, with his contributions amounting to little more than shots on goal and his involvement in build-up play negligible.
Despite his age — he will be 33 next month — Ronaldo is well worth keeping for his goalscoring instincts alone, but he now needs a lot of support and should be regarded as the cherry on top rather than the cake.
And Bale, of course, is really a winger rather than a centre forward, although he was pressed into the latter role on Sunday and did extremely well, scoring both goals in his first league start since September.
But there are ongoing concerns about Bale’s ability to avoid injuries, and in any case he’ll be 29 by the start of next season so he can hardly be regarded as a long-term answer.
So it’s pretty clear — and has been ever since they sold Morata — that Real need to bring in new blood up front, and as far as I’m concerned it’s blindingly obvious who they should go for: Harry Kane.
The Tottenham striker earned publicity recently after finishing 2017 as Europe’s highest scorer, netting a hat-trick against Southampton in his final appearance of the calendar year to take his tally to 56, surpassing Lionel Messi’s total of 54.
Although calendar year stats are rather contrived and shouldn’t really be taken seriously as records, it does show that Kane has been able to sustain his success in two different seasons, against a wide range of opposition and in all sorts of playing conditions.
By now there should be no doubt about his credentials anyway, with his Premier League goals tallies of 21, 25, 29 and 18 and counting over the last three and a half seasons more than enough to prove he is no one-season wonder.
At the age of 24 Kane is still moving towards his prime, unlike the other strikers who have long been linked with a move to Madrid, Robert Lewandowski and Sergio Aguero, who are both 29.
So I have no doubt that Kane should be the number one target to strengthen Real’s attack, and the Bernabeu club’s president Florentino Perez should also double-up his shopping spree in North London by persuading Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino to come with him.
Pochettino is a man on the rise, and his work with Tottenham is enough to warrant a chance with one of the elite.
The only other coach with such good credentials who could be a realistic target (therefore excluding Diego Simeone and Pep Guardiola), I believe, is Chelsea’s Antonio Conte, but Pochettino’s deep previous experience of Spanish football following his decade-long playing and coaching spell with Espanyol gives him a significant advantage.
All of this is speculative, of course. Benzema may yet return from injury to score a hat-trick against PSG to spark a return to form and another Champions League title — in football, you never know.
But if the current trend continues, there will be wholesale changes at the Bernabeu before long. And if that happens, Pochettino and Kane should lead the new order.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.