Titles, yes. But Madrid the Real deal?

Sergio Ramos lifts the trophy as Real Madrid celebrate winning the 2017 UEFA Champions League Final against Juventus in Cardiff. ‘Los Merengues’ tend to peak in the latter stages of the Champions League, with their players producing their best form when it matters most. (Getty Images)
Updated 28 May 2018
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Titles, yes. But Madrid the Real deal?

  • In Spain, Zinedine Zidane has been dismissed by some as a “clap clap” coach, somebody who does little more than stand in the technical area banging his hands together in encouragement, while letting the players get on with it.
  • Real Madrid win not because they stymie the opposition, but because they have so many good players that eventually one does something to win the game.

KIEV: Tonight Zinedine Zidane could become the first manager to win the Champions League three times in a row. Only Bob Paisley has ever won three before. That suggests the Real Madrid manager is one of the greatest ever — yet nobody truly believes that. The general view, in fact, seems to be one of confusion. What is it, exactly, that Zidane does?
In Spain, he has been dismissed by some as a “clap clap” coach, somebody who does little more than stand in the technical area banging his hands together in encouragement, while letting the players get on with it. That is not entirely fair, given that at various stages Zidane has left out Gareth Bale, Isco and Karim Benzema; persuaded Cristiano Ronaldo to spare his body by playing less often; and changed the course of games with astute substitutions.

But at the same time, Zidane lacks an obvious style in the manner of most modern coaches and, more troublingly, his teams often struggle to control games. They win not because they stymie the opposition, but because they have so many good players that eventually one does something to win the game. That has proved enough to bring success in the Champions League, but Real Madrid’s recent league record is dismal: For the richest club in the world to have won only two league titles in the past decade suggests something badly awry. Last season they won the league on the back of a string of unlikely comebacks; this season, the concession of 44 goals, more than Getafe and Espanyol, could not be overcome.
But that also says something about the modern Champions League. Over the past nine seasons, more than half the available slots in the competition’s semifinals have been occupied by three clubs: Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern. Wealth takes teams a long way. Certain clubs are all but certain to qualify and, having done so, are then all but certain to make it through the group stage. Jeopardy then comes with the last 16 draw, but frequently a super-club can breeze through to the quarterfinals without being tested at all.

 

And once a team is in the last eight, unless there is an outstanding side, the Champions League can feel like a game of pass the parcel. As Chelsea discovered in 2012, this competition is less about prolonged brilliance and more about simply being a good cup side and having a bit of luck.
Madrid’s success is probably down to a little more than that, fortunate as they were with the draw two years ago, but it does suggest a devaluing of what is supposed to be Europe’s premier competition. Or perhaps, more accurately, a repackaging: The Champions League has become what the FA Cup used to be, glamorous and exciting, a gripping drama and a creator of heroes — but not necessarily a way to determine who is best.
What Madrid have achieved — and it is something the club also did in the late 1950s when they won five European Cups in a row while winning la Liga only twice — is to find a way of peaking in the latter stages of the Champions League, so their players produce their best form when it matters.
In that sense, Zidane’s greatest gift is less the application of any sort of intensity or tactical rigor than simply his ability to coax superb performances out of fine set of players. His closest recent forebear, perhaps, is Carlo Ancelotti.
Such haphazardness and lack of planning, though, seem to run counter to the modern age. How long can you keep on winning just because your players are better than the opposition?
Tonight, we will find out.

Decoder

FASTFACTS

Marcelo vs Mohamed Salah

Marcelo might be one of the world’s great attacking full-backs, but he is not particularly disciplined when it comes to the defensive side of his job. That should offer opportunities for Salah, the Premier League’s top scorer, to get behind him. But the situation on the flank is more complicated than that. Against Roma in the semifinal second leg, Jurgen Klopp left Salah high up the pitch as Aleksandr Kolarov pushed forward from left-back. That meant Salah repeatedly found space, but also that Trent Alexander-Arnold was at times left exposed against the twin assault of Kolarov and Stephan El-Shaarawy, with Georgino Wijnaldum struggling to get across to cover from the right side of midfield. Klopp, presumably, will not risk something so cavalier here and Salah will track Marcelo at least to an extent — though if Madrid operate a 4-3-1-2, as seems likely, the direct pressure on Alexander-Arnold will be less intense.


Can Barcelona shine without their star man Lionel Messi?

Updated 23 October 2018
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Can Barcelona shine without their star man Lionel Messi?

  • Barca's first test without their main man is against Inter Milan at home in the Champions League on Wednesday.
  • Catalans will look to Ousmane Dembele, Rafinha and Malcom, to step up in his absence.

BARCELONA: Barcelona’s lowest ebbs are invariably followed by questions about Lionel Messi but the issue of over-reliance may become clearer over the coming weeks.
The sight of Messi on the ground, grasping his right arm, during Barca’s win over Sevilla on Saturday prompted reactions inside the Non Camp normally reserved for the conceding of goals.
Hands behind heads, fingers over mouths, the concern became real shortly after the final whistle when the club confirmed Messi had fractured his radial bone.
His absence leaves Barca vulnerable when they need him most, for a run of fixtures that includes Inter Milan in the Champions League on Wednesday, the Clasico against Real Madrid on Sunday, before a return match against Inter in Italy at the start of next month.
If he takes longer than expected to recover, he could miss tricky games against Real Betis and Atletico Madrid in La Liga too.

Argentine ace Messi was in agony as soon as he hit the turf — he will be out for as many as six matches. 


Barcelona have grown used to accusations of dependence, not least when results have taken a turn for the worse.
When Ernesto Valverde left Messi on the bench for the 1-1 draw at home to Athletic Bilbao last month, the argument was given added weight by him coming on and making the assist for their equalizer.
“This is Barcelona,” Messi said afterwards. “We have a strong team and we have enough not to have to depend on one player.”
The same point was raised last season, when Messi, as a substitute, inspired a late fightback from two goals down against Sevilla and scored in the 89th minute.
He played the entirety of the Champions League collapse against Roma but then the criticism was Barca had failed to find the answer when Messi had not provided it.
There is no team in the world that would not look worse with Messi extracted.

‘CASTING FOR REPLACEMENTS’

As Real Madrid are proving in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, a striker’s goals are difficult to replace but so too is the aura.
“Emotionally we know when Messi is there he gives us more confidence because he is the best in the world,” Pique said on Saturday. “But it does not have to affect us.”
To maintain a resurgence built on wins over Tottenham and Sevilla, as well as a draw away to Valencia, Valverde will have to find the solution.

Can Ousmane Dembele raise his game in the absence of Messi? 


On Monday, Marca listed six options in a “casting for replacements” — Ousmane Dembele, Rafinha, Munir El-Haddadi, Malcom, Carles Alena and Sergi Roberto.
Alena, the 20-year-old midfielder, is an exciting talent, while Malcom, only a year older, scored 12 goals for Bordeaux last season.
But Dembele is the most obvious. Messi’s position on the right of the front three is where he is most comfortable, rather than off the left, where the 21-year-old has often been made to adapt so far.
After a debut season blighted by injuries, Dembele started the first six games of this one, scoring five goals.
But doubts remain about him in big games, where his habit for losing possession can be punished by opponents quick in transition and clinical on the counter-attack.
When Barca went three matches without a win, he was dropped. “He is not yet fully aware of what it means to play at the highest level,” said France coach Didier Deschamps last month. “He still needs to learn,” Valverde said last weekend.
It would be a surprise if Dembele was not at least given the chance at Camp Nou against Inter, who are level on points with Barca in Group B, having also beaten PSV Eindhoven and Tottenham.
Second place might have been the limit of Inter’s ambitions when the draw was made but with Messi out, they might spy an opportunity. “It is a pity,” said Mauro Icardi. “And a big blow for them.”