Zidane has Real Madrid poised to fight for Liga, Copa and Champions League
The most optimistic -- or should one say reckless? -- section of Real Madrid supporters are already speculating on the number of titles their club could win this season: Is a double in the cards? Perhaps even a Treble?
Indeed, the season seems to be heading in the right direction. Results have been consistent both in domestic and international competitions. The team offered some of their most complete performances without some of their most revered players, which showed the depth of the squad. The atmosphere in the dressing room couldn't be better. To cap things off, rivals Barcelona can't find their terrifying form of previous seasons. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, a few factors could, in fact. One can never forget that top-level teams are only three poor matches away from a crisis, as any defeat is magnified by the media, by supporters and at times even by club members.
Manager Zinedine Zidane should closely monitor a few issues. First, injuries haven't stopped hitting the squad in key positions. The first two matches of 2017 have not featured Gareth Bale, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Mateo Kovacic or Lucas Vazquez.
Again, Zidane and his squad have reacted impressively to the sequence of absentees since the season started. For instance, one would think the team's ability to press up on the opposition's half would suffer without Ramos, Kovacic and Vazquez, probably three of the most defensive-minded players under the command of the French manager. However, the first 45 minutes of the match against Sevilla rank very high on the list of best defensive performances this season, while Granada could muster only a shot on goal after 89 minutes of their visit to the Santiago Bernabeu.
But that's hardly sustainable without the right personnel, and if new injuries happen in even less covered positions -- both starting full-backs lack real substitutes, for instance -- the consistency of the side will suffer and so will its ability to perform in do-or-die matches. From mid-February onward, as the Champions League and Copa del Rey calendars enter into the picture, Zidane's team will have no margin for error in at least one match a week.
Second, the level of physical intensity of the team has been remarkable, and that is hardly sustainable for a whole season. Perhaps the signing of Antonio Pintus has made a difference, or maybe the constant rotation of players that Zidane has implemented -- partly because of the injuries, partly to keep most players involved -- has worked out.
The fact is that it's extremely difficult to maintain this level of fitness over nine months. A recent example is Carlo Ancelotti's second season: A first four months in which they won 22 consecutive matches in spectacular fashion saw them falter in January and February, months that cost them La Liga, with defeats to Valencia and Atletico Madrid and a draw in Villarreal, and the Copa del Rey, in which they were eliminated in January by Atletico.
The last piece of concern does not depend on Zidane's men: The other teams also play, and it's hard to see both Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in Spain and Europe or Bayern Munich and Manchester City in the Champions League, playing with the lack of consistency they have shown in the first half of the season.
As a tricky appetiser, Real Madrid will face Napoli in the Champions League round of 16, a trademark trap fixture including former Madrid players such as Jose Callejon or Raul Albiol. Real Madrid fans are quite familiar with former club players dumping them from the Champions League, as Fernando Morientes did with AS Monaco in 2004.
Real Madrid now look confident and focused, and if Zidane can channel this self-esteem into a sustained effort over the next five months, they have enough depth to fight for all three titles. However, the French manager must fight complacency and physical exhaustion. If he does, titles won't be guaranteed, but a decent challenge for most indeed will.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.