The opening weeks of the new year are brimming with tough tests that will play a crucial role in deciding whether 2018/19 is a success.
Fourth in LaLiga and with a Champions League tie with Ajax around the corner - not to mention the chance for Copa del Rey revenge over Leganés - Real Madrid head into a new year whose opening weeks are brimming with challenges that will be key to deciding whether their season ends in success or failure...
Madrid go into 2019 with several dates circled in red:
Madrid's LaLiga campaign has been far from ideal so far, but despite their poor start to the league season they remain within eight points of leaders Barcelona, and five and three of Atlético Madrid and Sevilla, respectively - and have played a match less as a result of their participation in December's Club World Cup, where they defeated hosts Al Ain to claim a third straight global title. Their game in hand, against Villarreal at the Estadio de la Cerámica, is tonight (21:30 CET).
Before going to the Wanda Metropolitano to take on Atlético in the Madrid derby on 10 February, Santiago Solari's men will face assignments against Real Sociedad, Real Betis, Sevilla, Espanyol and Alavés. La Real visit the Bernabéu on 6 January, before Madrid go to the Benito Villamarín on the 13th, host Sevilla six days later, visit the RCDE Stadium on the 27th and then welcome Alavés to the Spanish capital on 3 February. What follows that run of games is Madrid's first red-letter day of 2019. Assuming both sides come unscathed through the intervening matches, it'll be a Derbi Madrileño in which Los Blancos will be out to close the gap on their city rivals, albeit it's a deficit they can start reducing against Villarreal this evening.
After meeting Girona and Levante, Madrid then have their biggest remaining test of the LaLiga season: El Clásico against Barcelona on 3 March, in a clash that falls right in the middle of the first and second legs of the Champions League last 16. Having suffered a chastening 5-1 defeat to their arch rivals in the sides' first meeting of the campaign - a thumping that led to Julen Lopetegui's sacking as coach - Madrid will look to get their own back with a first home league victory over the Blaugrana since October 2014.
After that tough initial sequence of LaLiga games, Madrid's fixture list becomes altogether more straightforward. However, one need only glance at Los Merengues' results so far this season to be left in no doubt at all that any game, no matter how winnable on paper, can quickly go south.
Madrid's eyes are firmly fixed on Saturday 1 June, the day of the Champions League final at the Wanda Metropolitano, but if they are to get to the showpiece at the home of Atlético, the holders must first negotiate a last-16 match-up with Ajax. The first leg will be in Amsterdam on 13 February, with the return at the Bernabéu on 5 March. It's a tie that comes amid a tricky run of fixtures for Madrid, who meet Atlético before travelling to the Netherlands and, as mentioned above, host Barça ahead of the second leg.
If they can dispose of the Dutchmen, they'll keep themselves in the hunt for an unprecedented fourth consecutive Champions League title - one that would extend their record tally of European crowns to 14.
Copa del Rey
The Copa del Rey tends to be a competition that offers Spain's top clubs a chance to salvage their seasons, and in the wake of the results that they have posted in the opening period of the campaign, that could just end up being the case of Real Madrid in 2018/19.
Having knocked out third-tier outfit Melilla in the previous round, the first Copa hurdle that Los Blancos must get past in the new calendar year is a last-16 clash with Leganés, who sensationally dumped their near neighbours out of the competition last season. The sides meet in the first leg at the Bernabéu on 9 January, before concluding the tie at Butarque seven days later.