That Real Madrid has reached a fourth UEFA Champions League final in the last ten years, been to the semis eight years in a row, and in particular made it into the finals 80% of the time within the past five years, has left a sour taste in the mouths of the fans and employees of seemingly perennial opponents Juventus, Bayern Munich and Barcelona, flavored the writings of some pundits, and confounded thoughtful enthusiasts alike.
Juventus (no UCL trophies in past the decade) felt aggrieved by the penalty called on the towering Medhi Benatia who brought down the smaller Lucas Vazquez from behind, in the box, in stoppage time of their second leg quarterfinals match against Real. Bayern Munich (UCL winners last in 2013) complained that a hand ball by Madrid’s Marcelo, in Real’s box, went uncalled in the second leg of their semifinal with Real. Barcelona (UCL winners last in 2015) complained, well, because, well, it’s Real Madrid, right?
Pundits have sided with Real’s opponents in the two penalty issues—for the record, Papa believes the penalty against Juve was fairly called and the one in Bayern’s favor was unfairly a non-call—and have found ways of belittling or downplaying Real’s achievements as undeserved or simply a bit fortunate.
There are two interesting things the pundits and team partisans seem to have missed (?), though. For the pundits, it is fascinating to point out that few have ever mentioned the fact that Real Madrid has often played (and mostly won) without the benefit of either their best team on the pitch or a coach who can read what is happening in a match and react to it constructively in real time. For the partisans, the fact that their teams are each guilty of such unsportsmanlike performances or actions makes their calling Real out for anything downright hypocritical.
Let’s take the partisans on first. See what Juve did to Ronaldo in that famous 3-1 Italian win at the Bernabeu and you will notice that late penalty was, if anything, long overdue. Juve fans have also seen how often their club receives officiating largess in Serie A, not to mention their scandal riddled past of not too long ago. See what Bayern gets away with in the Bundesliga, a competition that allows a single club to amass such overwhelming firepower that all other clubs pale in comparison and are hard put to compete, much like PSG in France, or Juve in Italy, for that matter. Then there is Barcelona, who for the better part of the Lionel Messi era—years during which the gifted, best player in the world has been surrounded by the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Neymar, Luis Suarez, and David Villa, to pick just a few of the world’s top assist men—cheated (by their play and by the officiating largess they routinely received) at home and abroad as a matter of course.
Finally, let’s look at what line-ups have been available, and which were used by Real, and at what occurred on the pitch that might have been addressed by a vigilant coach, but wasn’t, in this last edition of the Champions League.
Picking the 2-2 match at the Bernabeu as emblematic of the many that preceded it in this competition, we notice that the heretofore completely ineffective, and at times detrimental, Karim Benzema started over Gareth Bale. Others might say he scored two goals, but they would have had to miss the perfection of Marcelo’s cross which made a Benzema miss from that spot perhaps expected from him but certainly not from any other striker. The second goal, of course, was any 12-year-old’s wet dream. Note Benzema’s contributions otherwise over his 72 minutes of action and then compare them to Bale’s during his twenty-five minutes of action. You might note Bale did more right in his short span than Benzema with three times as much of an opportunity of the pitch.
On the right side of Real’s defense, playing right wingback, we saw Vazquez, who showed in the previous Allianz Arena match that he was not a…right wingback. This took place, of course, despite the fact that we could see Casemiro and Nacho sitting on the bench, one an experienced defensive midfielder who has played defensive back often and the other, well, a defender.
But Casemiro came in at 73rd and Nacho at the 88th minutes respectively, well after Bayern had squeezed all possible advantage out of the blunder of the line-up (see how the game’s four yellow cards, all given in the second half, were each given for rescue plays on the right side of the Real defense). That Bayern built so much on the right side of Real’s defense, pinning the home team in its own half for most of the game because of that imbalance, was as much a result of the German team’s efforts as of Real’s poor line-up choices. The fact that even after witnessing the onslaught coach Zinadine Zidane could not come up with the proper reaction until after half of his defenders and midfielders had yellows, is a testament to Zizou’s current managerial development.
Now here is where we can address those confounded enthusiasts. Let’s take parts of Rory Smith’s recent article, the ones dealing with the other coaches used to compare with Zidane’s nuts and bolts coaching. The largest number of the better coaches of our current era are plying their trade in the Premiership, with which Mr. Smith has ample experience. What the writer is pointing out is that better coached teams usually succeed because of their communal adherence to the viewpoint of their coach. What these top coaches have in common, he points out, is that they both have a game-perception (philosophy, system) to share with the discerning and an ability to imprint that perception upon their teams. The best of those coaches take a style of play to its ethereal limits—think tiki-taka and the Spanish national teams of 2008, 2010, and 2012, or the Dutch national teams of the 1970s, or the Barcelona sides under Pep Guardiola—and they win. The problems are that even well coached teams lose, that Zidane has no such perceptions nor the nuts and bolts knowledge to improvise or react, and that absent these alternatives there are still other ways that teams can win consistently.
Real Madrid, much to the discomfort of many team sport enthusiasts, wins with their individuals. Many teams with a stable of stars win when those stars put in a communal effort, Real wins often when a single player, or at times just a couple, do something special. Witness Cristiano Ronaldo’s scoring, alone putting in more goals than PSG in their two-game tie or as many as all of Juve in their two-game tie. Witness Keylor Navas’ saves in both series and one could argue those two players took their team to the semifinals. But one could also single out those who rose to the occasion in a critical game or two, like Luka Modric playing outstanding defender against Bayen yesterday, or Sergio Ramos when his headers twice led Madrid onto the next height against Atletico Madrid. Think of Toni Kroos in his consistent role as two-way traffic controller in midfield, as stopper and assist man in last year’s series against Napoli and Bayern.
Real Madrid may not be a better team than Bayern Munich or Barcelona, they are better than Juve and PSG (without Neymar), but come game day they are blessed with very talented players who, once chosen to suit up, are given a green light to do what they do. On the biggest of club stages, when a top tier opponent fires up their competitive spirits, these players relish the opportunity to showcase what they bring to the pitch. Often their singular contributions are decisive for their team. It seems there can be an “I” in team.
The Real Deal Madrid often (not always, witness this season’s La Liga and Copa del Rey slip ups) surpasses others’ systems and tactics, and overcomes their own coach’s blunders, with the sublime contribution(s) of a player or two at a time. As long as the club can buy exceptional players, AND allows them to do their thing on the pitch at game time, we will be treated to a different experience, one that the Merengue fans themselves are not sure they want to embrace, even as they hold on for each roller coaster climb.