Johannesburg - The last time Real Madrid finished outside the top three in Spain was in the 2003/04 season, when former Bafana Bafana coach Carlos Queiroz was in charge.
Los Blancos finished fourth in La Liga, lost the Spanish cup final against Real Zaragoza 3-2 and were beaten in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
It was to be Queiroz’s last season in charge of the Madrid giants as he moved on to be Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant at Manchester United after being fired.
If Zinedine Zidane wants to avoid the same fate, the Frenchman will have to make history by guiding the club to a third consecutive Champions League victory, a prospect that now seems possible after the club’s impressive 2-1 victory over star-studded French side PSG on Wednesday night at Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.
As things stand, Real’s chances of winning La Liga are virtually nil. They stand fourth on 42 points - 17 behind arch rivals Barcelona and 10 behind Atlético.
In the cup, they were sensationally knocked out by mid-table team Leganés, who stunned Real 2-1 at Santiago Bernabéu to advance to the semi-finals.
Zidane described the defeat against Leganés as a fiasco: “My worst moment as a coach. I take responsibility.”
Real’s start to the season was probably an indication of things to come. They failed to win any of their opening three matches at home - drawing with Valencia and Levante, and losing to Real Betis.
In the Champions League, a draw at home against Spurs and a 3-1 defeat in London saw the Premier League team finish top of the group ahead of Real.
Fans want to know what has gone wrong and many are blaming the clubs’ transfer policy at the start of the season. Striker Álvaro Morata joined Chelsea for €80 million (R1.17 billion); Brazilian defender Danilo went to Manchester City for €30 million; and midfielder James Rodríguez was sent on loan to Bayern Munich.
In their place, Real bought a number of no-name players, with Theo Hernández (€24 million from Atlético) and Dani Ceballos (€16.5 milion from Real Betis) the only players fans thought could really help the team - a far cry from saying they could adequately replace the three stars who left.
Midfielder Luka Modric said results had simply not gone their way: “The results haven’t been what we expected. But this is football. Last season, things went well; this season, we have played quite well, but not always enough. It is a temporary crisis and we will achieve our goals from here to the end of the season.”
The Croatian international shied away from saying what those goals were, but with the league title so far in the future and the team no longer involved in the cup, the only thing that remains is a repeat success in the Champions League, allowing them to enter the Club World Cup and compete for the UEFA Super Cup.
That will not be easy because there are a number of clubs who are looking strong and may take over Real’s Champions League crown, such as Barcelona, Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain.
The French high-spenders are the team Real will be facing in the round of the last-16, with anything but victory spelling disaster for the La Liga team.
And that is something Zidane is well aware of, knowing that it is not only Real’s season at stake, but perhaps his own fate as Real manager.
When asked if his future depended on the Champions League, the French World Cup winner said: “Yes, that’s clear. I’m responsible for this, I’m the boss. I have to find the solutions. We’ve found some of them, but not consistently enough. I need to take responsibility and I’ll always fight.”
However, only time will tell whether fighting is enough.