Champions League: Real Madrid's incredible title defence sets new precedent for other super clubs
Real Madrid might be a model for other super clubs to follow, those which are not in thrall of a particular way of playing. By setting an example, Zidane has earned the right to be called great once again. It is time for the gates of the pantheon to reopen.
27 years. That’s how long it took for a club to successfully defend its European title. Once the tournament was revamped as the Champions League in 1992, it became tougher. The road to success was longer and there were more obstacles in your way. No longer was it a tournament for the Champions alone. All big, rich clubs were welcome.
But Real Madrid, the epitome of a ‘Super Club’, has reached the land where nobody has been in a long time. When you realise it took Zinedine Zidane only 20 matches to win the Champions League twice, the achievement looks incredible. But Madrid crossed many a river from game seven to game twenty. A year ago, a penalty shootout win in the final had left many doubters. But this time, Real Madrid has had little convincing to do.
Now, the club enters the pantheon of all-time great European sides. It does not tell the whole story but three Champions League titles in four years is a pretty strong argument. There is, of course more to Madrid’s success. This team represents the ‘Super Club’ era better than any other side. Real Madrid’s glory is the apotheosis of the impulse to transform European football into a competition for the rich.
But saying this does not cheapen the triumph. Real Madrid’s place in history needs to be assessed as it best represents the current trend in football. An obsession of hoarding has undergone a process of rationalisation at the club. Zidane’s side is an assembly of riches, a team which gets some of the best players together to play a football of the present. Indeed, it is apt that the team is managed by the French legend – he was among the first galácticos to join the club after all.
Zidane himself spoke about his emotional connection with the club, after a historic night in Cardiff. “I feel like dancing. I owe everything to the club. I am a man of the house, this club is in my heart.” Special his relationship might be, but the manager has never spoken of a special way of doing things. There is no overarching philosophy to his success. Whatever works best for the squad will be the only way.
Each great European side has been defined by a totemic figure or a belief in a particular method. The Ajax of Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels gave us a new interpretation of space; Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan—the last side to win the European Cup back to back—added an element of scientific preparation to it; Pep Guardiola’s tiki-taka¬ revolution was another examination of space while stressing the benefits of a vibrant youth system. Tactically, Zidane’s side reproduces the best of each of those worlds. There are shades of many great teams when Madrid is in its element.
And like every team worthy of its place in football’s folklore, it has a star. A player like no other in Cristiano Ronaldo. The shine off his persona often limits an authentic understanding of what makes this Madrid side great but he is always there when the team needs him. This season, he has become an end point to the side’s brilliance like never before.
The first goal on Saturday night was a perfect representation of the dynamic this team represents. A sweeping move ended with Ronaldo guiding the ball home. There was much to admire in the whole act. Toni Kroos’ incursion into the Juventus half with a piercing run was one. Dani Carvajal’s storming blitz which allowed Ronaldo to play a one-two with him was another. But the Portuguese star stole the limelight yet again. Everything at Madrid seems to culminate in him.
Yet, this has been a season which has seen Ronaldo’s worst output in seven years. 41 goals is still a figure which very few players reach in a campaign but for a footballer who operates on a plane far removed from others, it may not be entirely satisfying. But this was a choice Ronaldo made at the beginning of this season. Zidane was certain that his talisman could not approach the end of another campaign tired and limping.
There were injury problems last summer and the manager sought to rejuvenate Ronaldo by resting him at different points this season. The result? Ronaldo’s decisiveness has touched greater heights. Over the course of this campaign, he took fewer shots for a goal than ever before. Ten goals in five Champions League knockout matches against Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Juventus is unfamiliar territory. As the stakes got higher, Ronaldo was not just equal to the effort but better than it. “I prepared myself for this, you win the biggest prizes because of what you do at the end of the season.”
Now, Ronaldo—the only player after Alfredo di Stefano to score in three European Cup finals—has the silverware he desired. His manager has broken new ground too, overseeing a side which has scored in each of its last 65 matches. More importantly, Zidane has led Real Madrid to its first Liga and European double since 1958. His stature among the football greats keeps growing, beyond imagination.
It took the smashing of a fortress for the whole side to join Zidane in the realms of legend. Juventus had conceded only three goals in this season’s Champions League before the final. The Italian side’s players were driven to set history right. The Old Lady of Turin had lost four finals since its last Champions League triumph in 1996. But Massimiliano Allegri’s men conceded four times in 90 minutes to a team which was itself driven by the desire to accomplish something historic.
As Zidane said on Saturday night, “the key is that all players got annoyed.” Annoyed by what? By the constant doubting of Real Madrid’s credentials? Or annoyed that they did not have enough success yet? The desire to do one better than before. Last season, Real Madrid was just the European champion. Now, it has two titles.
If the players keep bringing “their own grain of salt”, as Zidane said, there could be more. Real Madrid has shown that ‘Project Star Power’ works. Zidane, with his footballing pedigree, has managed a dressing room full of talented footballers and blended it into an exciting side; a team which works in unison. From man management to tactical strategy, he has demonstrated shrewdness to his purpose. This might be a model for other super clubs to follow, those which are not in thrall of a particular way of playing.
By setting an example, Zidane has earned the right to be called great once again. It is time for the gates of the pantheon to reopen.
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