Barcelona v Real Madrid: How can Los Blancos close the gap?

There will be no guard of honour for Barcelona from Real Madrid this weekend, but Zinedine Zidane's side have been in the Catalans' shadow.

Zinedine Zidane   -  Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images

Real Madrid could well end the season with a third consecutive Champions League crown, but it is a sign of the remarkable expectations they face that questions will likely still be asked of Zinedine Zidane and his side.

The Frenchman takes his charges to Barcelona on Sunday for what many would have assumed, back when the fixtures were confirmed, would be a titanic tussle for the title between the two great rivals.

Instead, Ernesto Valverde's team have already wrapped up LaLiga and are looking to complete an unbeaten top-flight campaign, having also won the Copa del Rey. 

Madridistas will argue the Champions League is a bigger prize than a domestic double, but rumours over Zidane's future have intensified despite Los Blancos continuing to dominate in Europe, albeit with more than an element of fortune.

Triumphing against Liverpool in Kiev will likely ensure the 45-year-old remains in his post, but Madrid have a lot of work to do if they are to catch Barca next season. Here, we examine five key areas the club must focus on in order to bridge the gap. 

 

FRESHEN UP THE ATTACK

Madrid have scored 82 goals in LaLiga this season, but their attack has still felt stale at times and the days of the 'BBC' are surely coming to an abrupt end. Gareth Bale is no longer a regular selection, Zidane benching the Wales star for big games, while Karim Benzema – despite his tie-clinching brace against Bayern Munich – appears to be suffering a downward trajectory. Cristiano Ronaldo has been in supreme form in 2018, but he had a dreadful start to the term and is now 33. Madrid have to start thinking about a post-Ronaldo future sooner rather than later.

The attempt to sign Kylian Mbappe was a clear nod Madrid feel they need more vim and vitality in their attack – Bale is the only BBC member under 30 – and links with Neymar make a lot of sense. As implausible as a move for the former Camp Nou star may be, few could have guessed a year ago he would go to Paris Saint-Germain. Inter captain Mauro Icardi, Bayern's Robert Lewandowski and even Harry Kane of Tottenham have been mentioned as possible recruits and Madrid simply have to land at least one stellar forward before next season. Bale, while insisting he wants to stay, can probably be moved on to free up funds.

KEEP ZIDANE... FOR NOW

Elite modern football simply does not tolerate a poor season and, if Madrid fail to retain the Champions League again, 2017-18 will go down as one of their worst campaigns in recent history. But Zidane still has to stay. He has become only the third coach to lead his side into three consecutive finals in Europe's top-tier competition – that does not happen by accident.

Yes, Zidane has a very strong squad at his disposal, but plenty of other big-name managers have failed to deliver the Champions League at Madrid. It is worth keeping in mind this is Zidane's first senior job – he is still learning. If Madrid were to get rid of him, with no obvious replacement, it would be a mistake that would come back to haunt them later. However, a slow start to next season will leave Zidane vulnerable, whether they triumph in Kiev or not.

SIGN A TOP GOALKEEPER

Madrid have conceded the most goals of all LaLiga's top four and while that record is not solely down to Keylor Navas, the Costa Rica international has been unable to prove himself as a worthy heir to Iker Casillas. Navas made some great saves in the second leg against Bayern, but he is found wanting too often and does not appear to inspire confidence in his defence.

It has been obvious for some time that Madrid want David de Gea, but Jose Mourinho is adamant the Spain number one will be retained by Manchester United for next season. If it really is impossible to prise De Gea away from Old Trafford, Madrid must find a world-class alternative. There are not many goalkeepers of that ilk around, but Roma's Brazilian star Alisson has emerged as a contender for future greatness this season, while there are too many stories linking Gianluigi Donnarumma with a move away from AC Milan for the speculation to be without merit. 

GET RONALDO FIRING FROM THE OFF

Ronaldo had a very flat start to the season, allowing Barca to build a clear lead over Madrid. He only scored four times in the league before the turn of the year, when his form reverted to familiar type. Ronaldo goes into Sunday's Clasico having scored in 10 of his last 11 LaLiga appearances, a run that has seen the Portugal superstar unveil that famous celebration 20 times. It is not realistic to demand that sort of run across a whole season, but these are the stratospheric standards Ronaldo sets for himself.

Fresh blood alongside him in attack – Benzema's selflessness has been a huge plus, but Ronaldo now needs more dynamism in a partner – would surely result in the five-time Ballon d'Or winner piling up ever more ridiculous returns as he nears the climax of his career. It is tempting to wonder, for example, how many goals Ronaldo could plunder with someone like Liverpool's Roberto Firmino alongside him.

BUILD AROUND ASENSIO

That the super-reliable Lucas Vazquez – who will turn 27 before the start of next season – is sometimes wrongly referred to as one of Madrid's promising young players says a lot. Zidane was appointed after a spell at Madrid's youth team, but he has brought few of those players through.

An obvious contender for more minutes is the brilliant Marco Asensio. This kid is ready. It is doing him a disservice to hold him back. Asensio's breakaway goal in Munich put Madrid in control of the semi-final and Zidane has to find a way to fit the 22-year-old into the team on a more regular basis.

  Dugout videos