MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 25: Fans of Real Madrid wave flags during the UEFA Champions League semi final second leg match between Real Madrid and Bayern Muenchen at Bernabeu Stadium on April 25, 2012 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Real Madrid's 2011-2012 season will be defined, for better or for worse, by what has happened in the last week. Jose Mourinho's men in white fell to Bayern Munich 2-1 in the Allianz Arena in Munich, then went into the menacing Nou Camp and beat rivals FC Barcelona (and in the process effectively clinched the Liga crown--they're up seven points with 12 still to hash out), and yesterday they beat that same Bayern side 2-1 in the Santiago Bernabéu over 90 minutes, but fell out of the semifinals of the Champions League thanks to the randomness of a penalty shootout.
During the most important stretch of the entire season, Real Madrid went 2-1. One of those two games, the victory against Barcelona, will go down in history as marking the end of the Guardiola-era Barça hegemony (for the record, Barça went 0-2-1 over the same stretch). Sure, Madrid "choked" against Munich during the penalty shootout. But any seasoned fan knows that penalty shootouts are effectively about random chance--they have almost nothing to do with the match itself, and are about as predictable as a coin flip.
Madrid and Bayern played 210 minutes of soccer, and couldn't be separated. They are both fantastic sides deserving of a spot in the Champions League final. Only one of them could make it; to Bayern's credit, they came through (sort of--they missed two penalties) when it mattered.
But guess what? I'm not upset. And let me explain why:
Alright, fine. I'm a little upset. But I'm not freaking out: this Madrid side might be one of the best in history. They managed to dethrone one of world soccer's greatest dynasties--Guardiola's Barcelona juggernaut--while simultaneously setting the record for goals scored in a single season (and there are still four games to play!). They did all this despite being considered a "defensive" team. They reached the Champions League semifinals, and were heartbeats, coinflips, away from reaching the final. They've reclaimed Madrid's image as a world soccer super power: a poll on WeAintGotNoHistory.com, our sister Chelsea site, indicated that more than 60% of their fans wanted to play against Bayern in the final...despite the fact that the final is in Munich. Now that is what this team has accomplished.
And there's more to be done: with Mourinho announcing that he's coming back for more next season, there is reason to believe that this side might be even better next year. Yeah, that's right. The side that set the single-season goal scoring record in la Liga might be even better next year.
That's why I'm not really upset about this defeat to Bayern. Sure, it would have been amazing to go to the Champions League Final against Chelsea. It might have meant la décima. But winning la Liga, setting some pretty epic records, and helping to contribute to the end of the Guardiola dynasty in Barcelona?
I'll take it.
There is one last topic I wanted to touch on: the idea that Real Madrid can start (or keep) either Angel Di Maria or Kaká is patently absurd, and bordering on stupid. There are two things that have created this notion that these two players are incompatible: a) fans of Kaká have seemingly decided that the only way for Kaká to start is to remove Di María from the team (and thus Angel Di Maria has become, to them, the embodiment of all that is wrong with Real Madrid), and b) some can't recognize that both players play important roles on the team.
Part A seems pretty obvious to me from the comments about Di Maria in recent weeks. I won't address it, as I don't think I need to talk about it any more, aside from pointing you to my articles about Di Maria.
Part B is actually aimed at people who can't understand Kaká's value on the squad. I wrote about this in a piece earlier in the year, and I'm sticking to it: Kaká, in some circles, has become undervalued. I don't mean monetarily. What he provides to the team is a) a welcome rest for Mesut Ozil, and b) a player who can open up games where opposing sides have locked themselves down: he performs extremely well on teams that have closed up shop, that won't press high up the pitch. He performs less well against teams that press--hence, his mediocre performance against Bayern, and the fact that Mourinho left him off the list against Barça. But this skill is very important, and it's something that Madrid has actually lacked in the past, and that's why Kaká still has tremendous value to this team. It's just he provides it in a way that we don't see as well.
Not only can Madrid keep these two players--if you really think Di Maria should be sold, I don't think you're seriously thinking about the team's interests, only your own fandom--they should. Let Kaká play out his contract. Give him a summer to get fit. Let Di Mariá get healthy (you know, he has been hobbling around for a good chunk of the second half). I bet when we put these players together, they'll show incredible abilities over the course of a season. Both of them.
One thing to the Kaká lobby: I love Kaká. I do. I have his jersey. But you need to know that the fanatical devotion that some of you show to him is actually putting off other fans: I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with Madrid fans who genuinely love the team, but say they have a hard time rooting for Kaká because of the way people react to him. Far be it for me to tell you how to support your players (I won't get into my own idiosyncrasies here), but I think it's something worth thinking about.