The best thing for Real Madrid about this season is that it is finally over.
A humiliating 2-0 loss at home to Real Betis on the last day of the Spanish league on Sunday brought to a close one of the most disappointing seasons in years for the most successful team in European club competition.
Madrid’s last match exemplified the collective decline of a group of players who had won four of the previous five Champions League titles but found themselves practically out of the running for any major trophies months ago. Defenders often a step too slow, midfielders unable to maintain ball possession, and forwards incapable of producing sufficient scoring chances, much less put the ball in the net.
Madrid finished in third place and 19 points adrift of champion Barcelona, the largest-ever deficit with its fiercest rival by the end of a season.
Madrid was effectively out of the league title race by January and was eliminated from the Champions League and Copa del Rey in early March, leaving the club with nothing to play for other than pride.
And pride couldn’t stop the team from failing to get a win in its last five away matches, or ending the season with back-to-back losses.
Coach Zinedine Zidane wants his players to remember this feeling.
“When you want to try harder and you can’t even achieve the smallest little thing, it is complicated,” Zidane said. “We have to accept that it has been a bad season. We can’t forget it; we have to have it very present in the future so it can help us improve.”
Now Zidane and club president Florentino Pérez can finally put in motion their plans to breathe some life into a squad that performed far below what its fans expect.
“Football is motivation … Next season this is going to change,” Zidane said.
Candidate No. 1 to leave is Gareth Bale.
Bale arrived at Madrid in 2013 as the biggest signing in football history. Six years, multiple titles and more than 100 goals later, Zidane looks more than ready to part ways with the Wales winger.
Zidane has rarely counted on Bale since he returned to the club in March nine months after stepping down, becoming Madrid’s third manager of the season following the failures of Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari. Bale didn’t leave the bench on Sunday in what many believed was his last game for Madrid.
But with Bale under contract until 2022, his exit may hinge on finding a club that can cope with the 29-year-old winger’s salary of a reported 15 million euros a season.
Goalkeeper Keylor Navas is reported to be unwanted after he became a second-choice player following the signing of Thibaut Courtois.
The future of midfielders Toni Kroos and Francisco “Isco” Alarcon and defender Marcelo are also in doubt after their sub-par campaigns, while Zidane has shown little interest in playing midfielders Dani Ceballos, Marcos Llorente and left back Sergio Reguilón.
“Nobody is going to take away what these players did for five years,” Zidane said. “(But) we don’t have excuses. We ask our fans for forgiveness because we have the obligation to give it our all.”
Of all the names floated, Belgium midfielder Eden Hazard’s is the most commonly heard. His contract with Chelsea expires in 2020 and he may be ready before then for a change after seven years in London.
The other major name is Manchester United star Paul Pogba, who Zidane has said he admires.
But unless Madrid can somehow succeed in prying Kylian Mbappé away from Paris Saint-Germain, then the goals that went missing when Cristiano Ronaldo left last year won’t be found in a single player.
Zidane will still have to solve the pending problem of retooling a team that spent most of the last decade feeding that goal-scoring machine called Ronaldo.
If not, then next season may not be much better.