Stuttering Real Madrid under scrutiny after Cup exit
BARCELONA: Real Madrid have come crashing back down to earth in recent weeks after a euphoric 2016 and must now cope with a long injury list as they try to limit the fallout from Wednesday's King's Cup exit when they host Real Sociedad this weekend.
The European champions are still in pole position to win a first league title since 2012, leading nearest challengers Sevilla by a point and third-placed Barcelona by two with a game in hand on both teams.
Their 2-2 Cup draw at Celta Vigo, which saw them exit the competition 4-3 on aggregate, exposed weaknesses in Zinedine Zidane's side, who set a Spanish record of 40 games unbeaten in all competitions earlier this month.
There are a number of parallels with Real's current predicament and the New Year slump they experienced two years ago with Carlo Ancelotti at the helm.
A 22-game winning streak came to an end in January 2015 and that was swiftly followed by elimination from the Cup by Atletico Madrid while injuries also piled up.
Injuries forced Zidane to play midfielder Casemiro at the heart of defence against Celta and while Raphael Varane is set to return to face Sociedad, he will still be without Marcelo, Pepe, Dani Carvajal, Luka Modric, James Rodriguez and Gareth Bale.
Zidane appeared reluctant to address their weaknesses against Celta, however, such as a glaring lack of organisation towards the end of the first half when they went behind to Danilo's own goal.
The sight of captain Sergio Ramos remonstrating with his team mates suggested the defence needed more support.
"After playing how we did I have little to reproach my players for," Zidane told reporters on Wednesday.
"When you play badly or don't deserve to go through it's different but we can't blame anyone, we put in a serious performance and showed character, it's just a shame we couldn't get what we wanted.
"We haven't been able to put our chances away recently but we're going to turn that around. If we keep working hard we're going to solve this. I can't say what's been happening recently, but I'm not angry or worried. This is football."
Real's resolve will be put to the test against Real Sociedad, who are fifth in the standings, level on points with Atletico Madrid in fourth, and beat Celta 1-0 in their last outing.
Champions Barcelona visit Real Betis in Sunday's early game, while Sevilla take on Espanyol away from home searching for a sixth straight league win.