Real Madrid won the Covid-19 suspended La Liga 2019-20 championship with a seven-point lead over second-place Barcelona (86 to 79) with but a game to go.
The difference was sealed at both matches as Real defeated Villarreal 2-1 at home while Barcelona lost 1-2 to visiting Osasuna. The victory was obtained at the Alfredo Di Stefano practice stadium and not the grand Santiago Bernabeu which is closed during the pandemic.
In the end, it was as it had been at the beginning: Real Madrid coach, Zinedine Zidane, fielded his umpteenth line-up and his team won their tenth match in a row, a stretch of victories obtained mostly by a single goal (2-1, 2-1, 2-0, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1), and with two exceptions, with relief rather than comfort.
The history and record books will say that Barcelona entered renewed play with a lead and a league title to lose while Real were in a position where they could not afford to lose once and didn’t. True. But if you watched every single one of those victories you know how tenuous they were, how nail-biting the last quarter of each match was rather than how at ease the team and coach seemed as the clock wound down. More often than not the final whistle sounded reprieve rather than vindication. At times you had to think the players and coach were glad not to have played in front of a full Bernabeu.
There were a lot of lucky moments, a lot of goal-line saves by keeper and central defender, a lot of game-turning penalties that might not have been called, many opposition chances that should have, by all rights, hit the back of the net, but did not. The stars seemed to have lined-up for Zidane and company, for we witnessed a team that used to wilt as often as stand tall when the opposition stood up to them find a way to persevere even when it meant relying on their defense to hang on for the win. One would have to hark back to Jose Mourinho’s reign at the Bernabeu to find a time when defense was a word in common usage among the Merengues.
Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, Dani Carvajal, Casemiro, and Thibaut Courtois, were the heroes of this championship. Each stepped up to contribute day in and day out and then took over at moments when needed. The score lines were testament to the team’s lack of offensive prowess and punch but also to their new-found defensive fortitude and above all else to their unrivaled midfield trio of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, and Casemiro. Congratulations to those, one and all.
Those history books, though, will also record that as the league comes to an end there are many Real starters in their mid-thirties and most of their replacements are actually on contract, only also on loan and untouchable for now. So, next month, when the Merengues have to play Manchester City to progress in the Champions League, where so many remaining teams in the UEFA competition are in better physical shape and technical form than Real, that good La Liga fortune may well fade away at the heels of tougher competition. Real’s celebration may be short-lived, but it might be they obtained the win the club’s future can build upon if only the brain trust at the Bernabeu sees it that way.
What will be most telling over the next several weeks is how that club leadership at the Bernabeu navigates the end of this team’s era as many of its mainstays age and/or move on and their replacements move in, while, as is likely, the president and coach remain. Will Zidane grow as a coach from this experience? Will Florentino Perez savor the win but focus on the correct purchases and trades and repossessions? Will there be time to build with next season so close at hand? In two back to back years of a Euro summer (2021) and a World Cup winter (2022), will Real Madrid have the vision, time, and focus, to build the next group (generation?) of winners or will they feel their reliance on what worked this year will carry them through in the future?
Many a dynasty was built upon a fortunate happenstance followed-up by an astute capitalization on that proffered opportunity. Similarly, many a champion crumbled when fortune chose to simply take a day off. Real was fortunate in 2019-20 but they will need to be astute for the next several years as good luck is never a foundation to build upon.