Sitting 10 points behind Barcelona in the La Liga table, and out of the Copa del Rey on unspeakable terms, it goes without saying that Real Madrid’s one shining hope for a trophy is the UEFA Champions League. There is not a single Real Madrid supporter that is not aware of this fact, but I feel that few of our supporters actually believe the dream win can happen. Even worse, I feel that few of our fans would actually feel true disappointment if we lose, not realizing that a serious chance for winning the trophy had passed by.
But maybe that is understandable. After the s***storm that has been this season, to some, it would probably be no surprise if we lost to Barca 7-0 on aggregate or were even knocked out by a spritely Wolfsburg side via an amazing comeback. But we should be disappointed if the day comes when our team has to watch the Champions League Final through their televisions, and not through their own eyes on the breezy pitches of the legendary San Siro Stadium. Think I’m crazy? Bear with me.
Imagine the Perfect Path to the Final: We Have It
The first thing to consider is the actual draw. Real Madrid have been given a gift by drawing Wolfsburg - the easiest team left to face aside from Benfica. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respect them, as they are a very capable team possessing the likes of Julian Draxler, Ricardo Rodriguez, André Schurrle, Luis Gustavo, Dante, and yes, Nicklas Bendtner, but they are a much more beatable team than say FC Barcelona. Bar something incredulous, we are in the semifinals, which is only one step away from the final, which is only one step away from glory. Bayern will probably be waiting for us, along with the winners of the PSG - Man City tie (neither of who are the favorites) and the Barcelona - Atletico Madrid tie. At that point, no team is easy to beat, but as we have seen in the past, it’s anyone’s game in the semis. The pressure of the occasion and the anticipation of the world’s most anticipated final levels the playing field, making the stage ripe for individuals willing to take the game by the scruff of the neck (I’d wager to say that we have a couple of those). In many ways, the team with the best mentality, and not necessarily the best squad, is the team that win’s the day. So it’s reasonable to expect that if we can make the semis, we should be gunning for the finals and a Champions League victory. "But what about Barcelona and Bayern," you ask? "Maybe if we were under Ancelotti we’d have an even chance, but this is a team broken by a horrible season" you say. Well I’ve got an answer for that to.
Real Madrid are Built to Beat Teams like Barcelona & Bayern Munich
If there is one thing you have to give Mourinho credit for, it’s instilling that lethal counter-attacking identity in our DNA. In the 2012/13 season, when we had no right to be beating Barcelona, we absolutely slaughtered them on some memorable occasions. The second leg of the Supercopa could have been 5-1 had Gonzalo Higuain been more clinical, the second leg of the Copa del Rey was a scoreline flattering for our Catalan rivals, and we beat them capably with in our second league encounter with Cristiano Ronaldo sitting on the bench.
Now granted, this Barcelona side is a different team than 3 years ago, one more versatile and dynamic in their attack, and slightly more solid in their defense. But they have many of the same weaknesses. They play a high line to narrow the pitch and counter their defensive frailties in their front three and midfield. This is supported by a classic pressing game, that further suffocates opponents and gives several one vs. one opportunities to their highly acclaimed trio. It’s a good system, but it’s ripe for feasting by a well-planned counter-attack. But the best part is that Zidane doesn’t have to get it immediately.
He has a test run nicely laid out for him at the Camp Nou, where the performance matters monumentally more than the result. Zidane can try things without the pressure of needing a win, such as carefully chosen counter-presses, that will give Madrid the chance to win the ball in situations where they can actually create offensive overloads. Or he can try positioning a classic playmaker in the side (aka Ozil) so that when Madrid win the ball, there is an instant outlet for possession that will triple the speed of our counter-attack. This, and more, can be experimented with, because despite what people want to believe, Barca are not unbeatable and unstoppable. Their weaknesses are obvious; it’s just a matter of execution. And who is better built as a squad and as an identity to exploit these weaknesses? It won’t be easy, but the tools to beat Barca are in our blood. It’s a matter of belief, because we cannot go into a potential El Clasico semifinal or final feeling inferior, like we arguably have been feeling of late. The confidence that Mourinho gave us needs to flow again.
Bayern is similar to Barcelona in their identity and style of play. Just like Barcelona, they have a possession core, but have become more versatile through the acquisition of new personnel and tactics. Yet just like Barcelona, their weaknesses remain largely the same. There is also the fact that Bayern are definitely beatable.
Take a look at their last 12 games. There are some impressive wins in there, but there are also some not so impressive ones, suggesting that the Bavarian giants are ready to hit their usual end-of-year slump that they seem to inevitably experience under Guardiola. Teams are figuring them out, and if not for an inspired performance borne out of a classic comeback speech rather than any tactical ingenuity, Juventus would be a potential candidate for us to face in the semifinals.
The Best Team doesn’t Necessarily Win the UCL
Sometimes people forget that the UCL isn’t the league, that Europe’s top cup competition is played over 13 games and not 38, that if Chelsea wins the Champions League like they did in 2012, it doesn’t mean that they are the best team on the continent. The Champions League is a more level playing field, open to win through/for: luck, the brilliance of single player, and teams set-up to win this type of format. Real Madrid have two of those things and could foreseeably have the first, just like in the past, when Del Bosque won Old’ Big Ears but got 5th in the league.
The Champions League Inspires Us As an Institution & As a Team
Real Madrid is a club that has a good relationship with this competition as they have made each of the last 5 semifinals, meaning that we had a realistic chance of winning the competition 5 years in a row. This trophy somehow means more to us than it does to any other team. It grinds our teeth with extra anticipation each year and gets the best out of players like Cristiano Ronaldo (who is possibly the best player this competition has ever seen along with Messi, Di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskás, and Raúl), Sergio Ramos (who is one Real Madrid’s most clutch players of all time), and Luka Modric (who is the best midfielder we’ve had in the 21st century). People forget that Ronaldo is on course to break the record for the most goals scored in a single season of the UCL in a bad season. People forget that if we need a game winning goal Sergio Ramos will be there to probably give us one. People forget that if we need someone to take control of the match we have the world’s best midfielder sitting right there ready to do it. And the best part is that all of this is possible without our team having played well this entire season.
So, does this mean I’m saying that Real Madrid are now the undoubted favorites to be crowned the European Kings of 2016? No. But what I am saying is that we have a damn good chance. Let me recap: we’ve received the most perfect draw imaginable, we are naturally set-up to beat teams like Barcelona and Bayern, we have a special connection with this competition, our players play and have played miles better in the UCL, and luck also has a part to play. Thus, I stand by my statement that it would be a disappointment, or at least a golden chance missed, if we don’t win the Champions League this season.