In the end, it was easy. It took less than a couple of minutes for Cristiano Ronaldo to put Real Madrid ahead and the club was on their way to a 33rd La Liga title. There were to be no final-day jitters. In fact, it was Barcelona who had to do it the hard way; the Catalan side fell 0-2 behind before a second-half comeback brought three points for Luis Enrique in his final game as manager at the club.
Madrid, though, could rest easy. Even a draw would have sealed the club’s first league title in five years. But Karim Benzema’s close-range strike in the 55th minute ensured that no points would be dropped. It was another of those calm displays which Madrid produced at crucial junctures this season.
Even in the final week of the league campaign, three potential banana skins awaited. But no problem. Two 4-1 wins over Sevilla and Celta Vigo preceded the victory on Sunday. Madrid had not lost to Malaga at the Rosaleda since 1983. A first clean sheet in 14 league matches for Keylor Navas ensured the record did not come under threat.
After the full-time whistle, Madrid were ready to celebrate well into the night. And why not? In an age of Barcelona’s near-monopoly of the league title, days like the one on Sunday have been rare. Only two of the last nine seasons have brought the La Liga trophy. Manager Zinedine Zidane was keen to stress that thoughts about the Champions League final can wait. Madrid deserved to cherish their success.
Indeed, if any individual can take credit for the glory, it has to be the club’s illustrious manager. This was Zidane’s triumph. His emphasis on rotation ensured that the team was fresh even in the closing weeks of the campaign. Never before had 20 members of the Real Madrid squad played more than 1000 minutes in a league season.
Ronaldo, arguably, benefitted the most from Zidane’s policy. In the past, the Portuguese forward had been reluctant to sit on the bench. But Zidane ensured that his prized asset understood the need to manage his playing time. After the loss to Barcelona — Madrid’s only defeat in the run-in — Ronaldo proceeded to slam six goals in four league matches. His decisive contributions over the past month or so have brought the club on the cusp of a first European Cup-League double since 1958.
But it was not just Ronaldo’s goals that carried Madrid to the title. This was the success of a group which shared its goal-scoring duties. Four players got double figures on the scoresheet as Madrid struck the back of the net in every league game for the first time in their history. This helped the side to win all of their away games in the second half of the campaign (10 out of 10), a record no other team had ever achieved in La Liga.
Furthermore, Madrid kept their nerve in tense moments. Out of the 10 times Zidane’s men found themselves level after 75 minutes this season, seven of those occasions produced a win. Add to this the late winner versus Valencia last month and the stoppage-time equaliser against Barcelona at Camp Nou. Those moments were a testament to Madrid’s resilience, a never-say-die attitude which has been the hallmark of Zidane’s 18-month tenure at the club.
The 44-year-old manager also demonstrated a knack for changing games, particularly making good use of the club’s impressive bench strength. Young faces like Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez were important to Zidane’s plans as substitutes who could alter the side’s shape in the final third.
But perhaps nobody influenced the manager’s tactical plans better than Isco. Especially in the final weeks, he became a seemingly indispensable figure for Zidane. It was telling that Madrid’s only recent loss in the league, to Barcelona, came when Isco was not playing.
For the decisive match on Sunday, Zidane broke away from his policy of rotation to name an unchanged side. Isco was retained for a game which eventually brought a windfall of €1 million (about $1.1 million) for his old club Malaga, as part of the deal struck by his current employer in 2013. Madrid’s league title gave a little cheer to their opponents as well.
Isco cut a peripheral figure for a considerable time at the club but frequent injuries to Gareth Bale brought him back into the reckoning this season. With his ability to run past players in the opposition half, the 25-year-old midfielder has been a veritable asset for Madrid. Moreover, the playmaker’s clever ball distribution makes him the ideal figure to play behind the front two of Benzema and Ronaldo.
In fact, Isco first demonstrated his importance to Zidane’s plans last November when Madrid travelled to play city-rivals Atletico. In a match where Ronaldo stole the headlines with a hat-trick, it was the introduction of the playmaker which gave a tactical headache to Diego Simeone’s men. The 4-4-1-1 setup had Isco finding pockets of space in the final third all evening as Madrid demolished Atletico.
Arguably, that victory was the first tangible statement of what Zidane brought to the club. Through his surprise tactical plan, he trumped his redoubtable counterpart. It showed a different side to Zidane, a manager who was not afraid to experiment with new ideas if the situation demanded so. Within months, the manager had begun to stamp his authority at a club where doubts had persisted over his suitability for the job.
It is worth mentioning that, just like the last time Madrid won the league in 2011-12, the club did not have the top scorer or the goalkeeper who conceded the least number of goals this season. But Zidane’s side was the best team in the competition. As the club gathered for a night of celebrations, nobody could dispute that.
Updated Date: May 22, 2017 11:53 AM