By Karl Matchett.
The last eight are known, the first run of would-be challengers have fallen by the wayside and the early favourites...well, they remain the favourites.
An intense and enthralling round of 16 knockout stage in the UEFA Champions League saw the likes of Arsenal and Juventus exit, but few others who evoked any real excitement or entertained hopes of going far in the competition. What we're left with is those who have a genuine chance of lifting the trophy: holders Barcelona, domestic rivals Atletico Madrid, money project Paris Saint-Germain and comeback kings from Wednesday, Bayern Munich.
And, of course, Real Madrid.
They are outside of the initial group of four. Not because they don't have as good players, not because the club isn't big enough or capable of success, but because they have no fixed style, no proven method of winning games when it matters. In short, they are a tactical mess.
Ask anybody remotely interested in the world of football to broadly describe the style of Barcelona and they could do it. There's possession and domination of territory, the penchant of playing out from the back and the deadly front three, MSN as they're dubbed. Bayern aren't too far removed from the same style, though can be more individualistic in attack and favour rotation of positions centrally. PSG attack the wings in a 4-3-3, Atletico's success is built on defence, organisation and tremendous work ethic. It's all identifiable, even if they have their own traits, kinks in the system and players who can break the mould.
Real Madrid? Nothing of the sort. The transmission from Rafa Benitez to Zinedine Zidane as head coach had one particular positive to it: the happiness of the dressing room. That was it. There was no tactical innovation that Zizou brought, no clarity of how to take the side forward or proven CV to dictate he should yield better results than Benitez, it was simply a popularity decision.
It has proven as such over the last few months, but the problem with popularity is that it can quickly disappear. It's a nonsense to suggest anything along the lines of Zidane deserving to be replaced, of course; he's merely working with other people's tools at present and trying to coax consistency out of a group of players who have not worked together, as a unit, all season long.
A 4-3-3 is rigidly stuck to by the French boss, in every single game he has taken charge of so far, even to the extent that he has given chances to fringe or youth players such as Lucas Vazquez or Borja Mayoral when injuries struck elsewhere, rather than shift systems. Late on in the odd match there has been a move to 4-4-2, but only when the game is done and subs are coming on to get game time.
Tactical shifts to alter the context or control of matches have simply not happened.
To an extent it's understandable, with Zidane still searching to find a framework for the players to work within and have consistency in the approach, but the players do not work hard enough collectively to warrant the ongoing fixation with the current system. The midfield becomes quickly isolated or swamped, overrun and thus leaving the defence exposed. While the back four itself has been switched and swapped due to injuries, it's a recipe for disaster.
In the past few weeks alone, Malaga created enough chances to beat Real three times over in a single game-they drew 1-1-and Las Palmas should have at least taken a point off them, before losing 2-1 late on to a pair of set piece goals. Atletico Madrid, a better-organised team and with a few top attackers themselves, beat Real in the derby at the Santiago Bernabeu. Earlier in the season, Barcelona won El Clasico with ease, ruthlessly exposing the deficiencies in Real Madrid's work rate, tactical organisation in midfield and inferior players in one-on-one situations.
Without far, far greater mobility off the ball from the front five or six players, Real will find themselves overpowered against any of the best four sides in the Champions League. PSG should have beaten them in the group stage and over the entire season the two other Spanish sides have proven they are better.
Real's entire season has been a complete farce, from the deadline day fiasco with David de Gea, through to getting kicked out of the Copa del Rey, sacking a perfectly good, title-winning manager for an inexperienced one and now falling well behind in the title race.
The one opportunity they have for redemption this season is to win the Champions League-but without huge improvements in their tactical setup, top quality individuals simply aren't going to be enough to keep them in the running against the continent's best teams.