Real Madrid will not go cautiously into the good night

“No one believed in us!” Motivational tactics are not nearly as prevalent in European football as they are in American sports. I think it’s because of the game’s built-in inequalities. The best European football clubs are hassle-free with American sports parity-promoting links. really well, to an extent that player drafts and salary caps and luxury taxes do not allow. Because of this, there is no real percentage of favorites pretending to be underdog status and they would probably find it under them to do so. And on the underdog side, it would be pointing out the trivial obvious to be sorry that no one believed you could handle it. Yes, David, we know, no one chose you to win the battle. Because the other guy was one literally fucking giant.

But if there is one club in this season’s Champions League that could argue for being discounted, written off and downgraded throughout a race that has now led to the semi-finals for the second year in a row, it would be Real Madrid. This is a bit ironic as Madrid is historically the club with the best pedigree in the competition and many of the leading figures in this repetition of the team were fixtures in the side that between 2014 and 2018 orchestrated the biggest period of Champions League dominance ever. Each of these aspects – Madrid’s historic place in the tournament, the team’s memory of the glorious race, the many years that separate that race from today – play into why Madrid have been repeatedly underestimated in European play this season and why the team repeatedly evidence. these doubts are wrong.

On Tuesday, Real Madrid ended their overall 5–4 victory over Chelsea with a nervous but triumphant 2–3 loss at home. That result made reigning UCL champion Blues the second favorite in a row to fall before White, after Madrid’s overthrow of Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16. Both bands had a lot in common. In both, Madrid was considered an underdog on paper. In both, Madrid’s opponents actually played them out in the vast majority of the two legs. But in both, Madrid utilized its deep well of experience, confidence and talent to get up big in the big moments to resist in the tough times and capitalize on the good times that gave them the best their supposed better.

It’s hard to explain how Real Madrid overcame Chelsea over these two legs without turning to clichés about intangible things and know-how and the will to win. The most concrete explanation can be found in the penalty areas. Although the large area between the boxes is where the majority of the game is played, it is within the two penalty areas where the matches are won or lost. And few teams in the world can match Madrid’s dominance inside both boxes. This safety around the goalposts comes primarily from only two players: Karim Benzema and Thibaut Courtois.

At this point, it is well established that Benzema is a player of the very highest caliber, and is currently in his prime. Throughout his career – from his outbursts on stage in Lyon, to his critical role as Cristiano Ronaldo’s amplifier for most of his time in Madrid, to finding himself the leading man in the years following Ronaldo – Benzema has been a champion in the subtle, the intelligent and the precise. These skills, plus his unwavering prioritization of the collective over the individual, made him the perfect compliment to an end product machine like Ronaldo. It also made the full range of his talents a little less visible; Most of the credit for Madrid’s fantastic attack went to Ronaldo, the goal scorer, and not Benzema, who did so much to make those goals possible in the first place.

This has changed ever since Ronaldo left. Now Benzema is able to use all the subtle movement and intelligent positioning and precise touch, not just to create for others, but also to get the ball in the net himself. His back-to-back hat-tricks in the knockout rounds, first in the second round of the PSG match, then in the opening round of Chelsea one, were just what we have come to expect from this vintage of Benzema. No striker of his generation has had more talent than the Frenchman, and he finally gets praise for it by doing what it is that earns these awards from both football lovers and casuals: scoring goals.

If Benzema has seen his star rise over the last few years to where it should have been for a long time, let this season do the same for Courtois. He may not be a Pirlo-with-gloves pass specialist like Ederson or Marc-André ter Stegen, but no goalkeeper right now is as reliable at protecting his net as Courtois. More than any other Madrid defender, Courtois is the one who did the most to prevent both PSG and Chelsea from burying White in targets during their long periods of attack. With Courtois between the posts, Madrid liked but did not succumb.

So if Real Madrid has a few best of the best players in Benzema and Courtois, and fills the squad with people like Vinícius, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Casemiro, David Alaba and Éder Militão, why then no one who thinks that the team is able to get as far as they have in a tournament where several of these players have already won several times? Well, because the team itself is not that good. Madrid no doubt got their place in the UCL semi-finals, but the team went into both knockout bands as underdogs for a reason. And although the greatness of players like Benzema and Courtois and Modric led Madrid so far, there is no doubt that both PSG and Chelsea looked like the stronger team in each of the four matches. Madrid may have Benzema to finish chances with ruthless efficiency, but the team is not very good at creating a range of scoring opportunities. Similarly, although Courtois and Militão were able to keep Madrid safe enough when the opponents came close white goals allowed defensive attacks to enter Madrid’s field with surprising regularity. Madrid went through by showing greatness in crucial moments, not by being particularly good as a whole. It serves as a nice encapsulation of what this team is: more amazing than it is good.

Part of the reason for this is that many of the team’s big players are old. For reference, of 16 Madridistas who entered the field during Tuesday’s match, seven of them also appeared in the UCL final in 2016, the first of the three consecutive European Cups that the club lifted during the iconic race. In addition, Nacho, who started the match on Tuesday, was an unused substitute in the 2016 final, and Gareth Bale, a starter in the final, was an unused substitute against Chelsea. Clearly, this is a club that has not undergone so much rejuvenation lately.

Although most of the guys still from the final six years ago are still exceptional players, none are at their physical highs. So while 36-year-old Luka Modric can still remove the corpus of shifting passes as his unreal assist to Rodrygo’s goal on Tuesday, he and his other old heads can no longer maintain their best with the same consistency and regularity they could in their prime. There may not be a midfielder in the world you would choose over Modric if you were to put together a team for a single match, but there are probably around a dozen you would prefer to have over a long season. And the same goes for most of Madrid’s other long-toothed veterans. This is how a team that performs so irregularly during a season could still fight its way into the UCL semifinals in consecutive years: by picking its places and advancing during them.

That, to me, is what makes Real Madrid’s performance this season so special: it really belongs first and foremost to these players, their enduring talent and their titanium mentality, strengthened over many years, giving them an unshakable belief in themselves and each other. Even the club can not take much of the credit for how things have gone, not by the way it has more or less left this group to fend for itself while the club spends its time planning its next big project.

Ever since Ronaldo joined Juventus in 2018, Madrid have been in something of a team pattern. In addition to signing Eden Hazard in 2019, the club has focused its team-building strategy on placing a large number of high-potential bets – expensive and well-placed bets, some of which, like those placed on Vinícius and Militão, have already paid off. , but bets anyway.

The reason for this uncharacteristically patient and unambitious transfer policy has a name: Kylian Mbappé. It has been clear for years now that Madrid President Florentino Pérez in Mbappé has seen the crown jewel for his next, probably last, legacy seal. Galactico project. I think Pérez’s obsession with Mbappé and his desire to get the Mbappé era off to an excellent start has made Pérez resist the urge to throw himself over the best possible current Real Madrid list in favor of to wait to get Mbappé and then get lost. While waiting for his coveted Frenchman, Pérez has been content to throw in some big salaries (Bale, James Rodríguez, Sergio Ramos, Pepe), see which of his previous bets could come in handy (Isco, Marco Asensio, Martin Odegaard – of which no one worked out), make room for the latest flock of expensive young people to develop (Vinícius, Militão, Rodrygo, Reinier, Álvaro Odriolozola), fill the coffers for the future through sales with big money (Raphaël Varane, Achraf Hakimi, Odegaard) and let the remaining icons of the previous decade unfold their destiny before their adoring fans.

Cold-faced, it is a wise strategy, especially in light of what the coronavirus pandemic did to the finances of all non-state-owned clubs. But it’s definitely u-perezian, and that’s not what Real Madrid is really about. What’s more, it testifies to a lack of faith in what the old guard had left in the tank. A Madrid that really believed in this collection of players would probably have done more to replace people like Dani Carvajal, Lucas Vázquez and Nacho, so they would not have to rely so much on three players who have either lost it (Carvajal, a victim of injuries) or never had it in the first place (the other two). A Madrid who saw a UCL semi-final race in the cards this season, after last season’s unexpected semi-final race, would probably not have gone into the campaign with a Rodrygo-Asensio timeshare on the right wing and would have sought out instead. a third striker similar to the talents of Vinícius and Benzema. With more urgent planning and a desire to make the most of Benzema and Modric and Kroos instead of moving on with what they had left, Madrid could have assembled the kind of team that would be favorites to fight for the UCL. the title instead of an ecstatic over having disrupted his way to the semifinals. If Benzema, Courtois, Modric and the rest of them want to keep it to the doubters, they will do well to knock on their own president’s door first.

At this point, however, it does not matter if anyone thinks Madrid should have a better list right now, or whether the team did or did not actually outcompete PSG or Chelsea in previous rounds, or whether Madrid or Manchester City should be. favored in the upcoming semifinal. The only thing that matters is that the players, and the players alone, have again drawn the club to the final phase of the competition, which the club defines itself by. This is the essence of Real Madrid – confidence, determination, fearlessness, hunger and greatness, all in total disregard for what others think or do or believe possible, whether it is the opposing team or fans or even their own club.

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