Rafael Benitez under pressure at Real Madrid ahead of El Clasico

Real Madrid's coach Rafael Benitez has been without several key players due to injury

He has only lost once, but Real Madrid coach Rafa Benitez is already under fire ahead of El Clasico. Adam Bate looks at the reasons why...

Barcelona's first defeat of the season came on August 14th - an emphatic 4-0 Super Cup thrashing at the hands of Athletic Bilbao. Bayern Munich didn't even last that long. They were beaten in the German Super Cup on penalties by Wolfsburg on the first day of August. Chelsea lost the Community Shield to Arsenal the next day - the first of nine defeats so far this season for the English champions.

Jose Mourinho, Rafa Benitez
Image: Jose Mourinho's results have been worse but both men are under pressure

But for all Jose Mourinho's struggles, it's curious that his old rival Rafa Benitez isn't immune to similar pressures himself. Benitez's Real Madrid were the last team in any major European league to lose their unbeaten record in all competitions when they were beaten 3-2 away to Sevilla earlier this month. Hardly a major upset against a side that recently went 35 games unbeaten on home soil. 

Nevertheless, the pressure on Benitez is real. "You saw it coming" was the headline on Marca the day after the defeat. "Results have been covering the deficiencies" they cried, before concluding that "something is wrong" at Real. It's extraordinary given that Real scored 17 times this season before conceding their first goal under Benitez, but some of the underlying numbers do suggest the concerns are not without substance.

Real Madrid scored 17 goals this season before they conceded any
Image: Real Madrid scored 17 goals this season before they conceded this season

When it comes to shots faced, while Barcelona and Atletico Madrid take up their customary position among the top three, Real rank among the bottom half of La Liga. Benitez's men have allowed more than 12 shots per game against them, even more than Granada who are only one place off the bottom of the table. It supports the view that Real have been riding their luck and relying on Keylor Navas.

La Liga 2015/16

Team Shots faced Rank
Atletico Madrid 108 2nd
Barcelona 114 3rd
Real Madrid 135 12th

The Costa Rican goalkeeper has been something of a revelation this season. Navas saved penalties against Real Betis and Atletico Madrid, as well as producing a series of fine saves in the victories over Levante and Celta Vigo. His performances have helped Real pick up points even while things have not been functioning properly at the other end of the pitch. Namely, Cristiano Ronaldo.

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Real Madrid coach Rafa Benitez watches Cristiano Ronaldo in a Melbourne training session.
Image: Benitez's relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo has been the subject of debate

Soon after Benitez took charge, reports of difficulties with Ronaldo began to emerge. The new coach's perceived fondness for rigidity in attack has been identified as a potential issue - particularly when Ronaldo found himself isolated as a centre forward. Former Real sporting director Jorge Valdano suggested the Portuguese star was "playing under protest" in that role.

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While many coaches might have prioritised their relationship with the team's three-time Ballon d'Or winner, that's not Benitez's style. In fact, when Real faced Paris Saint-Germain, Laurent Blanc appeared closer to Ronaldo than the Spaniard. But soothing egos is not his forte and there are now question marks over his chemistry with a number of the key players at the Valdebebas training ground.

Rafael Benitez and Real Madrid president Florentino Perez
Image: Florentino Perez only brought Benitez to Madrid in the summer

Benitez claimed that James Rodriguez had "a long way to go to get back to his best" when he restricted him to 30 minutes of action in the recent defeat in Seville. The Colombian appears to have interpreted this as a jibe given he declared "some people keep saying I'm not fit" after scoring for his country against Chile during the international break.

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Perhaps even more worrying was Sergio Ramos's reaction when criticised for conceding a penalty - saved by Navas - against Atletico. "Just as people talk about the mistake I made," said Ramos, "they will also talk about substitutions." It was a reference to Benitez withdrawing Karim Benzema and Isco with the game in the balance. In the Madrid cauldron, these minor matters can get overblown.

Real Madrid's coach Rafael Benitez shouts from the sideline
Image: Benitez's methods have been questioned by the Spanish media

But if players sense a coach's vulnerability and feel confident enough to criticise in the current climate, it adds to the pressure. Expectations become warped. Even the draw with Atletico, for which Benitez was criticised, was still a point in the Vicente Calderon. Real lost 4-0 in the corresponding fixture last season and hadn't even scored in their four previous visits under Carlo Ancelotti. It's worth noting too that Real are the current top scorers in La Liga.

'Too soon to judge Rafa'

'Too soon to judge Rafa'

Real Madrid boss Rafael Benitez should not be judged yet, says Terry Gibson.

It's a situation that confuses Sky Sports' Spanish expert Terry Gibson. "There has been far too much come out of that dressing room," the former Manchester United forward told La Liga Weekly podcast. "I don't see any clear evidence of this supposedly defensive system. I don't see any concessions, say in the last game, asking Ronaldo and Gareth Bale to do more defensive work.

Rafa Benitez and Gareth Bale
Image: Getting players such as Gareth Bale fit and firing is a priority for Benitez

"They have had a good start and until the Sevilla game they had been good. When all the injured players are back, then will be the time to fairly criticise or not criticise Rafa Benitez."

With James on his way back to full fitness and Bale expected to be ready for the weekend too, that key moment will soon be upon the Real Madrid coach. And the opponents are Barcelona.

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Benitez might have been the last coach to lose his unbeaten record this season, but that doesn't mean he will be the last coach to lose his job. El Clasico looms and Madridistas demand. Some supporters want wins, others expect entertainment. At Real Madrid, both are essential, and - bizarre as it might seem - for the man with only one defeat to his name, the clock is ticking.

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