Real Madrid need to find form against Deportivo after lacklustre Leganes win
It is a good thing that Zinedine Zidane prioritised the result in Leganes over the performance, because Real Madrid continue to amount to less than the sum of their parts.
"The result is good for us because we've kept a clean sheet and scored away from home," Zidane said when asked if the narrow victory in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinal -- sealed by a late Marco Asensio volley -- was one of the worst matches he has watched from the dugout.
"We struggled to find our game in the first half," he acknowledged, "we played a lot down the wings and we didn't find our usual football."
Except, they did find their usual football. Madrid served up a dollop of footballing stodge. Their performance lacked excitement and flow, even after Luka Modric and Isco came on as substitutes to lubricate the midfield. Despite brief flirtations with coherence across the last three months -- with the first half against Sevilla the clear example -- this is what we have become accustomed to when watching Madrid.
When Cristiano Ronaldo was at Manchester United he would strap weights to his ankles after a training session. As his teammates went inside, he would trot back out on to the pitch to practice step-overs. Ronaldo reasoned that if he could whirl his feet while inhibited on the training ground, the same movements would feel easier during a match. He would feel liberated. The Madrid squad, Ronaldo included, now play like they have forgotten to undo the Velcro on the ankle weights before taking to the pitch.
The Butarque crowd sensed that as the match heaved past the hour mark. The home supporters were boisterous. "Ole, Ole, Ole," swirled around the ground, accompanying each touch of the ball by a Leganes player. The white pocket of Madrid supporters responded with a demand to their team. "Echale huevos," they chanted, which roughly translates as "Get in to 'em". It felt incongruous that Leganes -- a club that was in the regionalised third division five years ago -- were toying with Madrid, even if it did not last.
Alfredo Relano -- the editor of AS -- neatly summed up Zidane's conundrum: "Each time I see the main team play, I lament Zidane's lack of changing things about but that sensation quickly evaporates when I see the reserve players playing so meekly, stumbling their way from game to game."
The situation provokes a chicken-or-the-egg reflection. Do the reserve players play badly because they know Zidane will always pick his trusted first-team lieutenants? Or does Zidane always pick his trusted first-team lieutenants because the reserve players play badly? Whatever the cause, the effect is that Madrid are stagnant.
But not all is gloomy. If Zidane were to sit at his desk, pen in hand, and trace down the LaLiga table, Deportivo would be among the teams he would mark with an asterisk as ideal opposition. Only Paco Jemez' obliging Las Palmas are more appetising fodder after conceding six goals against Girona last weekend.
Morale is low in A Coruna. Pepe Mel was sacked at the end of October and replaced by Cristobal Parralo, the manager of Deportivo's 'B' team. This was partly because Cristobal was doing a good job with the reserves, but mainly because there was no money for a more experienced replacement. Richard Barral then resigned from his position as sporting director at the start of January. He employed a "if you throw enough darts, you'll eventually hit the bull's-eye" approach to player recruitment, and threw most of his arrows in to the sheet of plywood behind the board.
Depor have not signed any players in this transfer window. This has left supporters frustrated, but unsure of where to direct their frustration. Many blame the players. A few blame the coach. Some see the erstwhile sporting director as culpable, while the president -- Tino Fernandez -- also has found himself in the firing line.
"Somos Gente Marinera" ("we're seafaring people") is the motto that adorns club billboards across A Coruna, accompanied by rugged sailors in Deportivo shirts. Galicians have traditionally looked out to sea for their livelihood. But Depor are in danger of drowning. Madrid, with Ronaldo and Gareth Bale returning to the team, know that a win will place them on slightly calmer waters.
Matt McGinn is ESPN FC's Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93