Santiago Solari heads into the New Year tasked with leading Real Madrid to yet another Champions League, closing the gap in LaLiga...
Close the gap between Real Madrid and the top of LaLiga
The first challenge facing Santiago Solari's Real Madrid is to keep on improving in LaLiga. Viewed through the prism of the last decade, in which winning the league has meant racking up at least 90 points, their current tally of 29 from 16 matches should all but rule them out of the title race. However, all the indications are that this season's LaLiga will be won with a lower haul of about 85, and despite their poor start to the campaign, Madrid are still within eight points of leaders Barcelona, five of Atlético Madrid and three of Sevilla, with a game in hand. Before the Champions League gets back underway, they take on Sevilla in late January and Atlético in early February, in two key tests that will go a long way to deciding what state their title hopes are in when they meet Barça in El Clásico at the start of March.
End five years without a Copa del Rey win
Madrid are lagging in LaLiga but remain firmly in the hunt in the Copa del Rey, as Spain's domestic cup prepares to race through three rounds - last 16, quarter-finals and semi-finals - in the Champions League's temporary absence (although this year's last-four ties will conclude in between the first and second legs of the European Cup's opening knockout stage). Despite having lost some of its prestige as a competition, the Copa remains the shortest route to major silverware. Madrid haven't won it since THAT Gareth Bale solo goal against Barça in 2014 and, with the exception of their elimination at the hands of Atlético in 2015, the years since then have seen their participation ended in ties with teams who, on paper, are markedly inferior: Cádiz, Celta Vigo and Leganés. It is the latter of those three sides that they now to take on in the last 16, on 9 and 16 January.
Carry on making history in the Champions League
In the Champions League, Solari faces his most daunting task: attempting to lead Madrid to a fourth consecutive continental crown - something no club has managed since Los Merengues themselves won five in a row in the European Cup's opening seasons. Ajax are the holders' last-16 opponents and, if they negotiate that tie, Madrid will learn their path to the final just a few days later - on 15 March - as this term's quarter-final draw will also decide who they can be paired with in the semi-finals. It's not as if the 13-time European champions need any further motivation in the continent's premier club competition... but the final on 1 June comes with the added incentive of being played at the Wanda Metropolitano, the home of city rivals Atlético.
Get the team playing better stuff
Improving the football Madrid are playing is a hurdle that Solari so far hasn't managed to overcome since taking over from Julen Lopetegui. They're winning matches, but are still not convincing. The sheer ability they possess got them through games against Valencia, Huesca and Rayo Vallecano to bring three league wins from three in December and leave them on a firmer footing in Primera División, but in each case they were turgid affairs in which Solari's men far from dazzled. And though their Club World Cup displays offered cause for optimism, it should not be overlooked that they were up against sides who fall well short of the quality boasted by Europe's elite.
Tighten things up at the back
Real Madrid's hopes of success are being undermined by a tendency to leak goals. On the back of two seasons that have brought two of their three worst defensive records of the past decade (68 goals against in 2017/18 and 70 against in 2016/17), Madrid have ended 2018 having conceded 31 in all competitions so far this term. What's more, they let in 74 in the calendar year - their highest total since back in 2003. With Solari in their dugout, Los Blancos' defending has improved (Thibaut Courtois has kept clean sheets in six out of 11 games under the Argentine, having done so just twice under Lopetegui), but when they do concede, it tends to be in bunches: two at Celta, three in Eibar, another three against CSKA Moscow...
Keep Vinicius' development going apace
With no 'galáctico' signings to speak of, Vinicius was the most exciting arrival at Real Madrid in the summer. Lopetegui did not trust the Brazilian and left him to develop in the reserves, then led by Solari, who since his appointment as coach of the seniors has started to give the 18-year-old more first-team game time. And the promising youngster is a player who comes with a useful dose of luck, it seems: his off-target shot was deflected in by defender Kiko Olivas to set Madrid on their way to victory over Real Valladolid in Solari's first match in charge at the Bernabéu, where the fans have taken to Vinicius with enthusiasm.
Get the likes of Marcelo, Asensio and Isco back to their best
Madrid's crisis coincided with several players suffering significant slumps in form. Long-term regulars like Marcelo, Luka Modric and Raphael Varane have been well short of their best, as has Marco Asensio - a hitherto secondary actor who had been expected to step up this season. Meanwhile, Isco has tumbled down the pecking order since Solari took the reins, going from key figure to bit-part player under the 42-year-old. Well aware that it is a long, hard season and that Madrid are still challenging on three fronts, however, Solari clearly doesn't want the Andalusian to lose heart, telling Wednesday's press conference: "He has given us many moments of joy and he must continue to do so..."