This was not a particularly costly defeat for Real Madrid. If anything, it could prove invaluable to Zinedine Zidane.
Wednesday's 2-1 loss to a resurgent Valencia at Mestalla offered further evidence of Madrid's malaise, thus strengthening the Frenchman's case when it comes to convincing club president Florentino Perez that he needs to spend big this summer.
After three consecutive Champions League wins, this campaign has been a calamity for Real, who have already run through two coaches, in Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari, thus necessitating Zidane's return after less than a year away.
Madrid's European reign is already over, as are their hopes of winning either the Copa del Rey or La Liga, but at least there is no chance of them failing to qualify for next season's Champions League, given they currently enjoy a 10-point lead over Getafe in fourth.
Still, in their first true test since Zidane's return, Real fell flat on their faces.
The former midfielder had steered his team to victories over relegation battlers Celta Vigo and Huesca in his first two outings but Valencia are a team of a different calibre, and so it proved.
Zidane brought back heavyweights Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Raphael Varane for the trip to Mestalla, while Keylor Navas, Casemiro and Lucas Vazquez also started. Tellingly, he also maintained Marcelo in the side, rather than giving Sergio Reguilon a shot.
The young left-back shone under Solari but Zidane is intent on finding out whether or not Marcelo can recover the elite form of his first spell in charge at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Much of his work over the final weeks of this miserable campaign for Madrid will focus on planning for next year, scrutinising the squad.
Zidane must work out who is surplus to requirements, who can be sold to raise funds for the transfer targets he wants to bring in.
With so many stars in the team, Madrid at first seemed to be playing from muscle memory in Valencia, holding their own. If anything, they shaded the first half, but it was the hosts who led at the break.
Goncalo Guedes caught out Navas at his near post with a punchy strike, throwing fuel on the fire of the goalkeeper debate at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Zidane always backed Navas in his first era at the club but the currently injured Thibaut Courtois is, in theory at least, the club’s first-choice shot-stopper for the foreseeable future.
Elsewhere, Kroos and Casemiro struggled in midfield, showing why their time at Madrid may be up, with Carlos Soler tearing past the latter before seeing a fine effort expertly saved by Navas, which went some way towards making amends for the Costa Rican's early aberration on the opening goal.
However, Navas could do nothing about Valencia’s second, an impressive late header from Ezequiel Garay, which secured his team the points.
One Madrid player who is free of criticism this season is Karim Benzema, who nodded home an injury-time consolation for the visitors.
Madrid need to reinforce the attack and replace the 50-odd goals they lose per season in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, but Benzema has rarely played better than he is now and must be kept.
His fellow Frenchman Varane also poses a huge question. The player wants to leave – or is trying to wrangle a new contract – but he was another one of the few Madrid players who were up to the challenge against Valencia.
Varane impressed at Mestalla and the team’s defence must be based around him in the years to come.
Funds could be raised by selling Gareth Bale, who made a listless appearance as a substitute, in what was probably one of his final outings for Madrid.
The bottom line, though, is that Perez needs to splash plenty of cash this summer. Zidane need only show him a video of this game if the president needs a reminder as to why.
By Rik Sharma
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