These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts — are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.
In Managing Madrid’s live podcast in Miami this January, Andres Cordero proposed an interesting definition of the term ‘world class’ (an appellation, for the most part, that’s vague and open to interpretation). His proposition: ‘world class’ should be reserved for players who’d be undoubted starters in their position wherever they go. As we explored further, we agreed that it could be expanded to ‘a player who could start for any team without there being a significant drop-off from player A to player B.’
That makes sense, and got me thinking: That immediately puts Real Madrid ahead of an overwhelming majority of teams in Europe, and a head above any team in Spain. Atletico Madrid, as good as they are on paper, have no such player whose current form fits the bill. Ditto Barcelona. Real Madrid have at least six: Thibaut Courtois, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Ferland Mendy, Karim Benzema, Vinicius Jr. Five other positions in the XI have fringe candidacy — that on its own is impressive.
Where does that put them as a contender? FiveThirtyEight currently projects that Real Madrid have a 4% chance of winning the Champions League title. The run starts with a 52% chance of advancing to the quarter-finals. Five teams have a better chance of advancing, and by extension, winning the entire trophy, per that model: Chelsea, Ajax, Liverpool, Manchester City, Bayern Munich. Bayern (26%) and Manchester City (23%) have the highest chance of becoming this year’s champion.
That’s about right. Some might get ruffled about Ajax being there ahead of Real Madrid — but Ajax also blitzed through their group and have to play Benfica instead of Paris Saint Germain in their round-of-16 clash.
It’s all about match-ups, your path to the final, and the timing of squad health to key players in both your team and that of the opponents’. There is no exact science to any of this. Ajax do not have a better team than Real Madrid, but they have an easier opponent next round. Odds may change again in the quarter-finals if there are shock results and some of the big guns are eliminated. Then there are other factors: Experience, psychology, and the intangible that fans of other teams get triggered about the most: Champions League DNA.
Real Madrid weren’t the hands on favourites in three of their four Champions League titles during their dynastic run, per Sports Odds History database. We don’t have odds for anything prior to 2003, but I’m willing to bet my house on the fact that Real were unlikely candidates in both 1998 and 2000 — where they finished fourth and fifth in the league respectively and won the Champions League title anyway. The way Real Madrid wins European titles while being able to sleep walk domestically isn’t normal, but it is in their blood.
What’s more is that they can even be bad in the Champions League and still win it because they turn up the dial when it matters. No season summarized this better than 1999 - 2000, where Real Madrid lost 8 - 3 to Bayern Munich over two games in the Champions League group stages, but somehow scraped themselves all the way through to the quarter-finals where they beat heavy favourites Manchester United, and then heavy-favourites Bayern Munich in the semi-finals (yes, the same Bayern that put them in the blender in the group stages) before beating Valencia in the final.
What does any of this mean? Likely, that superstars really matter, in more ways than you think — but not in every way that you think. The ‘99 - 00 team was in a coma for the majority of the season. But it also had one of the greatest defensive midfielders of all time (Fernando Redondo), one of the greatest left-backs of all time (Roberto Carlos), one of the top-five right-backs in club history (Michel Salgado), and one of the greatest forwards in Spanish football history (Raul) in its starting XI. All four of those players put the team on their backs when it mattered most. They clearly also had a nice mix of post-peak veterans and a young Iker Casillas making some noise. The cojones came through in the clutch.
Real Madrid will almost always have a collection of the world’s best players, which makes them a good bet even in seasons where they look like they’re on the fringes of contention. And as they’ve amassed more titles than anyone over the decades, they’ve earned a mental entitlement where they can switch it on when other teams can’t. Doubt them at your own peril.
But this Real Madrid is more than a team on the fringes. As noted above, as far as our definitions of world class go, Carlo Ancelotti’s men can go toe-to-toe with anyone, and quite frankly, have looked really hard to stop this season. This is more than a sleeping giant — it’s focused, hungry, and outright really good. Superstars and experienced legends can carry this team through turbulence. And that’s partly what makes Real Madrid’s next Champions League opponent, PSG, so dangerous.
PSG have the right, deranged formula for a classic sleeping giant title run: 1) superstars; 2) an underwhelming season; 3) veteran leadership and experienced Champions League DNA; 4) famished super-duper-stars who’ve failed every year and are tired of losing. I’m ready to point out plenty of tactical holes in Mauricio Pochettino’s scheme in the coming weeks (and have done so already) — but you mean to tell me that PSG can’t put together a few moments of transcendance over the course of two games and have some luck along the way? It’s on the table, even if I think this Real Madrid team matches up pretty well against them.
There isn’t much doubt that Bayern, Manchester City, Liverpool, and defending champions Chelsea are among the favourites to win this year’s most important prize — but I’m not putting a cent against this fearless white storm.