MADRID’S 34TH: A CASE STUDY IN DETERMINATION
“For us next year, the league must be our number one priority.”
Zidane had laid out a promise when he returned to the club he loved. Almost a year later, the Frenchman did fulfil his promise, leading Real to an unprecedented 34th league title, sinking the yellow submarine. “This is one of the best days in my life professionally,” said Zidane, as Sergio Ramos was handed the league trophy in an empty Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano. In such strange times, the strangest thing wasn’t the computer-generated fans in the stands or the made-for-television crowd noise. The strangest thing was that Real Madrid clinched the title at all. For all of Real’s past conquests and the attacking flair they constantly boast, the domestic triumph has been the antithesis of the pre-eminent ‘Madrid way’. Even by football’s crazy standards, Madrid are in a class of their own, being the most decorated club in Spain and they usually like to do things in a blinding flash. This year’s squad won the title by switching things up- grinding out results.
Despite hiring some of the best footballing brains, the club’s knee-jerk reactions to failure make the job the most demanding j in world football. After a three-peat in Europe’s elite club competition, Zidane stepped down and so began a torrid time for the supporters and players alike. Real’s fragilities were visible and out in the open with the departure of their iconic No. 7, followed by the French manager himself. Neither the club, nor Zidane himself could part ways for long as then manager, Julen Lopetegui was shown the door after a horrendous run of games and within nine months, Zinedine Zidane was back as the boss.
Never dubbed as a managerial genius, at least to the degree of some of his contemporaries, this sentiment remained even after the Frenchman minting 10 trophies as a manager with the Royal Whites. Zizou’s success as a manager was always branded as a stroke of luck and partly attributed to the colossal talent he had at his disposal, not discounting Mr. Champions League himself, a certain Cristiano Ronaldo. An ageing squad unaided with frequent injuries, Zidane’s homecoming showed little promise. The excitement was huge, nonetheless.
The doubts resurfaced however as the team continued to struggle even after the induction of Ferland Mendy, Luka Jović and the generational Eden Hazard. PSG outclassed and thumped Los Merengues 3-0 in the Champions League, followed by a defeat at the hands of the newly promoted Mallorca a month later. Real Madrid’s exceptional virtue to outscore opponents had come back to bite them, for an out-of-form Karim Benzema, the injury-hit Hazard and Bale, with the latter enjoying more on a golf course than in Real colours failed to find the net on occasions more than one. Zidane’s appointment, barring a few games, had been an exercise in Murphy’s law, whatever could go wrong did go wrong, disastrously. But what figured to be a rebuilding campaign turned into a model of understated solidity that culminated with a 2-1 victory over Villarreal.
The last two league titles were conquered by Barcelona and the Catalans were top of the league when the season resumed last month. Just a few days before the pandemic struck all of the world and everything was brought to a halt, including football, Zidane’s men had stunned the Catalonian side with goals from Vinicius Jr. and Mariano, despite being on the periphery for a majority of the season. With injured players, a young misfiring attack and humongous egos to manage, this league victory is a marvel in itself.
Ronaldo was Real’s goal mining machine and before his surprise switch to Turin which left a gaping hole in the Los Blancos attack, Benzema was his set-up man. The Portuguese juggernaut benefitted for countless times off his partner-in-crime but spotlight doesn’t have much room for others when there is someone as iconic as Cristiano Ronaldo around. Critics and most sections of fans had good reason to believe that Benzema would struggle to fill CR7’s shoes and struggle he did. Real’s No. 9, often the unsung hero, was right among the goals at the start of the season, but things went south as form dipped and injury woes struck. A 613-minute drought in front of the goal for their talisman, ended as he slotted the ball home from the spot against Real Betis.
Zidane’s arduous training regimes, intense long-range shooting sessions and his distinct style of keeping the band together and in shape made sure that Benzema’s dip in form did not throw them off balance. The boost in confidence in front of the goal was all Karim needed, as the Frenchman went on a scoring spree, netting 21 times in the league, only second to the demigod from Camp Nou.
The club based in Madrid has had a host of world beaters, who’d make sure there were goal-fests. The club even with someone as pragmatic as Mourinho had piled up a century of goals. But things were to change as at the end of the season, the crowned champions had managed to just score 70 goals in the league. To put this deficiency in front of goal into perspective, over its six previous championship runs this century, Los Blancos averaged over 90. But what the to-be champions lacked in attack, more than made up with a stellar performance over the season from the backline, with Thibaut Courtois at the heart of it.
The defensive wall of Real was full of running all season, mopping up to become the best defensive side for the club in 35 long years. Goal line clearances, last minute diving saves, playing out through the press and initiating swift counters, over the course of this season, Madrid’s defence did it all. For a club that has been synonymous with lightning quick attacks, leading them to become the strongest defence on all of Europe was a task as audacious in itself as it could be. In the earlier season, they had conceded a whopping 46 goals under Lopetegui and Santiago Solari combined before Zidane intervened and tightened things up at the back. Quick decisions, regular rotation and a rock-solid defence anchored by Sergio Ramos have honoured Real with not only the best defence in La Liga but across Europe’s top five leagues. But make no mistake, for the Spanish centre-half been an equal contributor in the attack.
In a team that boasts of such mercurial forwards, Ramos has shot and headed his way through to end the season as the second highest goal scorer in the team. Ramos amongst other seniors in the team, has been the voice on the pitch a manager desperately needs. Occasionally partnered with Marcelo, the pair were imperative in pushing the team forward, keeping the heads high and not letting them fall even after calamities have been the real deciding factor between Real Madrid and Barcelona. Football needs a villain and Sergio Ramos in the whites of Madrid has been the archetypal one that the game has demanded. Love him or hate him, he’s one of the greatest to ever do it.
The title story has been divided between two halves. A pre and post pandemic story of two titans fighting it out for the highest honour in Spanish football. Football came to an abrupt halt with eleven league games still to be played out and the title still up for grabs. The world went into an undesirable but necessary lockdown with Barcelona sitting on the top of the league, 2 points clear of their rivals from the capital. With the odds stacked against them, the team with exemplary grit and determination, snatched and fought for results and that has been the story all season.
A 35-year young Modrić sprinting on the right flank in the 93rd minute to cover for Carvajal, Toni Kroos in all his composed artistry, orchestrating the midfield and Casemiro being the absolute tank that he is, set the tone for the new guns. Fede Valverde’s clutch performances in the absence of the Croatian demonstrated the bench strength and the conditioning of the Real bench. With games coming thick and fast and the team counted out before the first of 11 games were played, a determined squad with depth and an infallible attitude have unlocked a new side of the Spanish giants.
The manager in his pre-match press conference stated that the team need to treat the remaining games as finals and when it comes to the big stages, no team in the land has managed to outwork his side. As it was expected, Real grinded out results, sometimes barely coming through, scoring 21, conceding 5 and pulling off 7 clean sheets in the process.
The resolute defence and a clinical attack paralleled with an impregnable midfield have ensured this title win will go down in the club’s folklore as a tale of hell-bent warriors conquering all of Spain, a story of a team that rallied back and how!