Real Madrid are used to finishing both the football season and the calendar year on a high. Four times in the past five years, Madrid have been European champions in May. This week, they hope to make it a fourth time as world champions in December.
Madrid beat city neighbours Rayo Vallecano 1-0 on Saturday – and in doing so recorded three successive clean sheets in the league for the first time in three years – before flying to Abu Dhabi in an Emirates A380 that carries livery of their all conquering team.
Luca Modric was presented with the Ballon d'Or trophy before the match, yet while Modric's stock remains high, that of his club teammate Isco has plummeted. Isco didn't feature on Saturday and has been sidelined by new manager Santiago Solari for nine of his eleven games since taking over. Isco did play on Wednesday, but was booed by some home fans – which led to him shouting back at them – during the 3-0 Uefa Champions League defeat to CSKA Moscow. That game was a dead rubber and Madrid had already won their group, not that the result or performance felt acceptable to the Madrid fans at the game.
Barcelona, too, had fielded a weaker side but they played a 1-1 draw against Tottenham Hotspur. Isco, Madrid’s best player at the start of last season, is tipped to leave for England at the end of the season. There will be no shortage of suitors.
Madrid's problems may not be evident in Abu Dhabi, where they play Kashima Antlers in the semi-final of the Fifa Club World Cup at Zayed Sports City on Wednesday, but they are in the La Liga. Madrid have scored 24 times in 16 league games so far and you have to go back to 2002 to find a team who had scored so few goals and gone onto win the league: Valencia.
On Saturday, Madrid managed only four shots on target against Rayo and they nearly conceded a late equaliser, but Thibaut Courtois was on hand to make a double save. Madrid didn’t play well and the side which was loaded with goals, most from the now departed Cristiano Ronaldo, is now shorn of them.
Sunday's Madrid-based newspaper Marca summed up the mood with a "The Bernabeu gets bored – another grey game," headline. Only 55,000 watched the last home game before Christmas – almost 30,000 short of capacity and Madrid's smallest home crowd since August when most Madrilenios are out of the city. Many of those present on Saturday showed their displeasure by whistling their own team.
After feasting on the finest trophies available for years, Madrid fans have expectations as high as the Bernabeu stands, and they let their players know when they are not happy. They are simply not used to seeing their team lose four from five league games as they did in September and October, a run which cost Julen Lopetegui his job. Results have picked up since, though the performances have failed to impress.
"A horrible Real Madrid," said the Catalan newspaper Mundo Deportivo, which would never miss an excuse to criticise Barca's greatest rivals. "They beat Ray Vallecano while asking for the whistle to blow."
Madrid are struggling and don't look like they have a defined style or killer instinct. We have been here before - several times - and each time they have recovered to prove the critics wrong. But can they do it again without Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane?
Should Madrid overcome Kashima, the Japanese side who defeated Mexico's Guadalajara 3-2 at Al Ain's Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, they will meet the winners of the other semi-final between River Plate and Al Ain in Sunday's final. Madrid, despite their problems, remain clear favourites.
They were also struggling when they arrived in Abu Dhabi 12 months ago, yet they still won the tournament with a 1-0 win over South American champions Gremio, despite being 1-0 down to Al Jazira at half time in the semi-final. On both occasions, Ronaldo saved them. He equalised against Jazira before Gareth Bale scored the 81st minute winner. It was the Portuguese who scored the only goal against Gremio in the final.
Madrid and Kashima Antlers met in the 2016 Club World Cup final in Yokohama. The Japanese side were leading 2-1, but one player scored three times for Madrid, the first after 60 minutes before two more goals in extra time. It was Ronaldo, of course.
In the absence of game-changing player for Madrid at present – Bale, for example, has scored only one goal in Madrid's last 12 league games and assisted none in three months – Ronaldo continues to be sorely missed. Madrid lost the European Super Cup to neighbours Atletico Madrid in August, a competition which they had become accustomed to winning. They surely can't lose the Club World Cup – a trophy they have won twice in succession – too?