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Soccer

Real Madrid Will Not Be Denied

Roberto Firmino of Liverpool battles for possession with Eder Militao of Real Madrid during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg match between Liverpool FC and Real Madrid at Anfield on April 14, 2021 in Liverpool, England.
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Real Madrid kicked off its Champions League campaign this season with an embarrassing and comprehensive defeat at the hands of Shakhtar Donetsk. What felt like an omen of a down year has largely born out. The Blancos continued to struggle in the UCL group stage, where they needed a win in the final match to potentially avoid Europa League ignominy, and they’ve spent the bulk of La Liga’s season looking up at Atlético and Barcelona in the standings. Yet in spite of all that, after a few months of playing consistently winning, if not exactly awe-inspiring, soccer, and at the end of a perfect week at the perfect time, somehow this old, raggedy bunch has fought its way back into the title races in both Europe and Spain.

The past week was all set to be the defining stretch of Madrid’s season. Last Tuesday, the team would host Liverpool in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals. Saturday would welcome Barcelona into town for a Clásico that could’ve either re-energized or essentially ended the Blancos‘ domestic title hopes. Just four days after that, Madrid would travel to England for the second leg against Liverpool. Those were three colossal tests, all back-to-back-to-back, that would go a long way toward determining the success or failure of Madrid’s season. And the team passed all three with flying colors.

What all three performances—a 3–1 win over Liverpool in the first leg, a 2–1 win in the Clásico, and a 0–0 draw in the second leg—reflected was the enduring supremacy of Real Madrid’s spine. Though the club has struggled mightily in the post-Cristiano Ronaldo era to acquire and develop elite attacking talent (Ronaldo left, Gareth Bale left, James Rodríguez left, Marco Asensio hasn’t developed as hoped, Isco has disappeared, Vinícius and Rodrygo aren’t there yet, Luka Jovic didn’t pan out, Eden Hazard is perma-injured), Madrid’s central lane, from Karim Benzema up top to Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, and Casemiro in the middle to Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane at the back and Thibaut Courtois in goal, has remained intact and adamantine. With a spine that solid, so battle-hardened after years of playing and winning the biggest matches in the sport together, Madrid is capable of competing with anyone.

The first leg against Liverpool was Madrid’s best showing over the past week, and it was a masterclass in midfield dominance. All three of Kroos, Modric, and Casemiro excelled in a match that played right into the Blancos‘ hands. Where Madrid has had trouble this season is when facing teams that sit back and defend deep, granting the Madridistas possession of the ball and obligating them to go create something if they want to score. Without great, small-spaces attacking players except for Benzema, Real Madrid has often looked inept at trying to threaten the opponent’s goal in matches like that. However, when competing against teams that try to attack and press, Madrid has regularly dominated. That’s because the team at each line has absolute geniuses at building play against pressure, at controlling the pace of the game, and at ruthlessly pouncing on open space in transition. Madrid had no trouble bypassing Liverpool’s famously intense (though a lot less effective this season) high pressing and turning it into countless opportunities to counter. Mostly, this was thanks to that midfield trio—which doesn’t get enough credit for still being the best in the world—and Benzema.

It’s worth giving a shoutout to Vinícius, who had probably his best game as a Real Madrid player against Liverpool. He was a constant threat running with the ball, as he always is, but the off-ball movement and calm finishing he exhibited on his two goals are the exact things that, if he can make them regular facets of his game, will turn the 20-year-old Brazilian into a star. And his total, unwavering confidence in himself to keep going for it even after routinely coming up short with awful shots and bad decision-making throughout his often-ridiculed Madrid tenure is just as impressive and encouraging as his skills.

Madrid’s victory in the Clásico wasn’t quite as easy to attain, but it did share similarities with the Liverpool match. Once again the Blancos were content to concede the initiative to the opponent, who once again tried putting the squeeze on Madrid through high pressure, and once again Madrid thrived in the open spaces after passing through the press. Barcelona managed to threaten Madrid’s goal more often than Liverpool had, especially during a strong second half that could’ve easily earned the visitors a draw, but Madrid weathered the storm (literally, since half the game was played in a torrential downpour) and rode Benzema’s unerringly intelligent, clarifying touches to the win. The three points jumped Real Madrid over Barcelona in the table, where the Blancos currently sit just one point behind league-leading (but rapidly faltering) Atlético.

The second Liverpool match was by far Madrid’s least impressive one during this stretch. For once the vaunted midfield proved incapable of controlling the match, and Liverpool attacked and attacked and attacked for most of the 90 minutes. Luckily for Madrid, those waves of Pool Boy attacks suffered from the same inaccuracy, inefficiency, and lethargy that has plagued the Reds all season long, so Courtois’s goal was rarely under much real danger. The defensive steel of Casemiro, Éder Militão (who might’ve saved his Real Madrid career by how great he’s looked over this past week, after playing horribly almost every time he stepped onto the pitch before then), Nacho, Ferland Mendy, and Courtois was able to keep the clean sheet, which is all Madrid needed to advance.

It’s hard to have a firm idea what is in store for Real Madrid for the rest of the season. The Clásico win was huge for their La Liga title chances, and they proved that there’s not a team in Spain they can’t beat. However, it’s a little hard to imagine that there won’t still be a handful of banana peels for all three of Spain’s title hopefuls to slip on in the eight remaining league games. Madrid may still be great at winning big games, but that isn’t the same as being great at winning lots of games; and Barcelona especially, with a much more reliable source of goals and an attacking style that thrives against smaller teams, could still have the better odds of collecting more points before season’s end.

In the Champions League, Real Madrid will next face Chelsea in the semifinals, and will then meet either Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain in the final. Chelsea isn’t the best matchup for Madrid—though Chelsea isn’t some amazing team, either—and the winner of City-PSG will be the big favorite to go ahead and win the competition. Madrid still has a fighter’s chance to lift yet another European Cup, as anyone does with at the tail end of a knockout tournament, but it would be strange to see as unremarkable a team as this season’s Real Madrid win it all.

The point, though, is less about whether or not Madrid will end the season with trophies and more that it’s incredible Madrid is even in position to potentially win any trophies. Ronaldo leaving Real Madrid in 2018 was supposed to symbolize the end of one of the most imperious dynasties the sport has ever seen, and a transition to either something new and still good or something old and worse. The club has thus far failed to bring in pieces capable of creating something truly new, and finds itself relying on all the old guys who’ve stuck around. And yet, while the team is certainly far from the heights of the Ronaldo era, Madrid has refused to go gently into that good night, and instead is fighting to maintain the old winning ways. That might not qualify as objective sporting greatness, but it is a form of competitive greatness, and that alone deserves admiration.

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