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A glance at the Spanish Liga F table tells a familiar story: eight-time champions Barcelona reign supreme at the top and the rest of the league trail behind. But the Catalan club’s supposed closest rivals, a young Real Madrid team trying to cement themselves as Spain’s second team, have not reached expectations this season: nine points adrift in the league, axed from the Copa de la Reina in the quarterfinals, and an ignominious exit from the UEFA Women’s Champions League at the group stage.
Only competing as “Real Madrid Femenino” since the summer of 2020, following a single season merging with CD TACON — an independent club from the capital which achieved promotion to the top flight for the 2019-20 season — there would be little shame in preaching patience … especially when up against a Barcelona side who have won 16 from 16 games in Liga F so far.
But the badge and name “Real Madrid” come with added pressure. The project in Madrid saw the club swing for the fences while they were still operating at TACON, adding established stars like Swedish duo Kosovare Asllani and Sofia Jakobsson as well as Champions League winners Aurélie Kaci and Babett Peter for their maiden Liga F season as the club attempted to fast-track their success, with mixed results.
In their first two years in Liga F, Real Madrid finished second with 74 points (W23, D5, L6), then third with 60 points from 30 games (W19, D3, L8); last season they came second with 75 (W24, D3, L3). Runs to the Copa de la Reina quarterfinals, semifinals, then final suggested that winning the title this year could be the natural progression, but rivals Atlético Madrid knocked them out instead as things fell apart after a dismal European effort.
The argument from head coach Alberto Toril (who took over from David Aznar after a poor run of results in 2021) is that the team is young and still learning its way. Yet, even allowing for the turnover of players which has seen all but six (Misa, Olga Carmona, Kenti Robles, Ivana, Teresa Abelleira and Maite Oroz) of their 23-player roster from 2020-21 depart, the squad is experienced, with most of the senior players boasting World Cup experience and now three years in Europe’s biggest club competition behind them too. Save for attacking reinforcements Esther González and Nahikari García, who were both signed for the 2021-22 season but are already playing their football elsewhere (Gotham FC and Athletic Club respectively), there has been a greater continuity in players since Toril’s arrival, with Real adding more talent each season.
In their first Champions League season, Las Blancas were dealt a dream draw, coming up against Ukrainian champions Zhytlobud Kharkiv, Iceland’s Breidablik and French giants Paris Saint-Germain — making it through before meeting Barcelona in the quarterfinals. In their second, the group was trickier, with Chelsea and PSG alongside Albania’s Vllaznia Shkodër, and they were eliminated.
But after Madrid’s loss to Chelsea that year, Toril spoke of the small gap between themselves and Emma Hayes’ Blues. He insisted he was happy with the performance and results of the team. So when they were paired together in the group stage again this season, the consensus was that it would offer an insight into just how far Madrid had come. Yet it was their worst group stage to date.
Toril’s side managed just one point, thanks to some questionable officiating calls at home to Chelsea on the first matchday, before a succession of losses to French side Paris FC, Swedish league runners-up Häcken and Chelsea doomed them before 2024 had even arrived.
“It has been a levelled game,” Toril told ESPN after the 2-1 defeat to Chelsea on matchday five, when Madrid had already been eliminated. “We’ve been able to limit a great team that has great players. I’m happy with the performance of my players despite that the result was not positive. Sometimes you draw positives from defeat.
“In the last few months, we’ve had a lot of injury issues. This has conditioned us at the crucial stage of the season and we haven’t been able to show our best level. This is a learning curve. We have to continue to grow. I think type of games like this help us. We have a young team, young players that need to experience games like this. It’s a pity because we had the opportunity to qualify but it was not to be. At times, the season doesn’t turn out the way you expected.”
Las Blancas have indeed had players coming in and out of the squad this season and it has cost them some momentum. The biggest blow was the loss of midfielder Caroline Weir — the 2022-23 player of the season — as her absence highlighted how much she carried the team last season and how much of the glue is still missing to make this Madrid team a harmonious one, rather than just a collection of talented parts.
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But the distance between Real Madrid and the likes of Barcelona or Chelsea is greater than their manager realises.
“I’ve been many years at this club, I know what it is, we are growing,” Toril added. “We are a historic club with many titles, but in terms of the women’s game we’ve only been competing for a few years: each year is better, we are building important things. You always have the pressure of winning at this club but I’m able to manage that pressure. We’re calm, we are helping the players to grow and improve. I’m sure we will have new opportunities next season.”
Finishing second or third in Liga F behind perennial champions Barcelona will bring about another season of Champions League football next year, but the cycle will only reset itself. Even with talented players on the pitch, there is no escaping the fact that something in Madrid’s football is lacking.
Las Blancas have suffered only three league defeats so far this term [including a 5-0 loss to Barcelona], but the wins haven’t always been convincing — like when they hosted Villareal in October and needed a 90th-minute winner from Signe Bruun, or the stoppage- time madness of their last meeting with Madrid CFF in which all three goals in the 2-1 win were scored in stoppage time.
Ahead of Wednesday’s derbi clash with Atlético, Real Madrid are two points clear of Levante in third place. The club’s ability to attract top talent and push for European qualification are enough to keep them half a step in front of most of their league rivals for now, but the bigger picture of their growth remains unclear.
Nobody expects them to compete with Barcelona immediately, but questions are being asked of a team and manager who are starting to feel the pressure now that expectations are increasing. If Madrid keep showing signs they are regressing under Toril’s leadership, something is going to have to change.