If Barca beat Real Sociedad on Sunday, Madrid (with a game in hand) will now be 17 points adrift at the halfway stage of the Primera Division, with no guarantee of finishing in the top four either as things stand, given Villarreal are now just one point behind them in fifth.
This was a season in which Madrid were supposed to dominate. Having won back-to-back Champions League crowns under Zidane, plus a first Liga title since 2011-12, this looked like the start of something. Instead, it could be the end.
Many of the team’s issues were in evidence against Villarreal. Tactically, Real were all too predictable as most of their chances came from hopeful balls into the box. With players like Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Isco in their ranks, Zidane’s side are not nearly as creative as they should be and it showed here.
The French coach is an excellent motivator and a master man-manager. He is no tactical genius, however, and his side has been reliant upon individual brilliance for much of his successful tenure.
However, with his famous forwards either injured or out of form this season, goals have been hard to come by, especially in La Liga. And prior to this fixture, none of his players had scored more than four times this season in the Primera Division.
That had never happened before in Madrid’s entire history and the sorry stat did not change in this match either. Real attempted 28 shots in total, more than any other side in La Liga this season, but many of those were speculative efforts.
Cristiano Ronaldo had 11 of those himself, but the Portuguese left his shooting boots at home. On one occasion, he was denied by a stunning Sergio Asenjo save, while he also had a decent penalty shout turned down.
Again, though, this was another poor performance from the 32-year-old, who offered little in terms of link-up play outside the box and was left frustrated along with his team-mates after Pablo Fornals’ late winner.
Playing like this, Madrid are simply not a very scary side and there is much work to be done if Los Blancos are to have any chance of beating Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 of the Champions League.
With their La Liga hopes evaporated, Real must focus now on Europe and also the Copa del Rey as they seek more silverware at the end of the season. And with his forwards flagging, Zidane needs a better tactical plan to make Madrid competitive again.
Less than a month after he led Los Blancos to a fifth title in 2017 and a seventh in his reign, the Frenchman faces a major fight to save his job.