There’s no question that Real Madrid are not only the best team in Spain, but also worthy champions of LaLiga. During their title march there have been guts, glory, magnificence, intensity and, from Karim Benzema, one of the great single-season performances of any footballer for Los Blancos in living memory.
None of which erases how much of an odd, angular, unusual triumph this has been truth that actually makes Madrid’s achievement all the more notable.
Having dealt with Espanyol and clinched the title with Saturday’s comprehensive 4-0 win there remains the possibility that more Champions League glory might follow against Manchester City on Wednesday at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium. Right now, it’s still feasible that Carlo Ancelotti’s side becomes only the second Real Madrid squad to be Spanish and European champions since 1958. Let that possibility sink in for a moment. It’s astonishing. Let’s hope they pull it off.
But, for now, try to put in perspective what a diamond in the rough this LaLiga title has been.
Madrid played their first three matches away from home, nominally a disadvantaged start, then their first Bernabeu game in front of just 19,000 fans. Did you remember that? Building works, COVID restrictions — this glittering season began a little inauspiciously.
On the subject of the Bernabeu, stadium redevelopment, with its associated venue dislocation, vast investment and reduced contact with fans, can become vastly expensive and even threatens a club’s very status never mind their ability to win the big prizes. So to win this long slog trophy in the midst of all that disruption is laudable.
It was the Stamford Bridge redevelopment that put Chelsea on the brink of bankruptcy and made their purchase by Roman Abramovich so vital and so simple.
In Glasgow, the Old Firm giants both faced extreme financial and social trauma, plus trophy dearths, when they needed vast upgrades to Parkhead and Ibrox, respectively. Valencia’s stadium nightmare one they don’t want, another sitting half-built and unused nearly finished them as a club.
Even the subsidised cost of the Allianz Arena, opened for World Cup 2006, left Bayern Munich financially compromised for a few years such that they lost two of the four Bundesliga titles up for grabs while it was being built.
And just ask any Arsenal fan about whether the cost of the Emirates Stadium, and the loss of Highbury, has (in the short and mid-term) helped or hindered the club’s finances and the match day atmosphere?
While building a football palace (the current cost of which is €800 million) which will rival any sports stadium in the world, and which will imminently make the club uber-dominant in Spanish football, Real Madrid have consistently been frugal (in relative terms) during transfer windows and as a result, only bought one significant player last summer: 18-year-old Eduardo Camavinga who cost €30m up front and who, notwithstanding that he profiles as a potentially exceptional talent, started just 10 LaLiga matches before this weekend.
Are you surprised that there’s extra merit in a title win which wasn’t vastly fuelled by expensive reinforcements?
David Alaba has been a lynchpin but arrived on a free transfer — good, well-planned, successful business.
For Madrid to be playing in a work-in-progress, reduced-capacity stadium where fan atmosphere has been deflated, and without huge investment to come to the aid of the legs and lungs of a team whose first-choice XI this season (with an average age of 29) features veterans aged 32, 34, and 36 who have played 180 matches between them, is an incredibly significant achievement.
There are more anomalies about Madrid’s 35th title, but only their third in the past 10 years. Take the Sevilla games. Our champions twice gifted their most dogged pursuers a lead when they played, but then forced one of Los Blancos’ most favoured words, “remontada” (“comeback”), on them in each occasion.
The more dramatic of those two “will they, won’t they” matches was in Seville, a hotbed of passion and searing heat. Madrid, apparently tiring, in the midst of the most extraordinary Champions League performances allowed Julen Lopetegui’s side to get a two-goal start, look like they were going to crush the league leaders and then took Sevilla to the cleaners.
The power, the passion, the invention and the determination of that 3-2 win at the Sanchez Pizjuan stadium, having trailed 2-0 and playing without their brilliant midfield enforcer Casemiro, will live long in the memory of the victors, the vanquished and any neutral lucky enough to have been watching.
It’s an oddity, too, that Madrid have wrapped this up having only had to play their bitter city enemies Atletico Madrid once (a 2-0 win) and having lost their home Clasico 4-0 to Barcelona. But, nevertheless, think of things like this: Ancelotti’s team lost just three times before clinching LaLiga. After each setback, the reaction was immense. The mark of proper champions.
Defeat in Barcelona to Espanyol was unexpected and limp. Their next result? An immediate trip back to the same city, a Camp Nou Clasico and a 2-1 win which was much more comprehensive and classy than the scoreline suggests.
Defeat to Getafe? Dopey and sloppy as it was, Los Blancos followed up immediately with a 4-1 thrashing of Valencia, who love to cause Madrid mischief whenever they can. A power-play response.
The home humiliation against Xavi’s revitalised Barca? The response was four straight wins before this weekend, 10 goals scored, six of those points gathered on the road. Phoenixes have risen from the ashes with less remarkable audacity than Luka Modric, Benzema, Thibaut Courtois et al.
It’s a likeable and oft-quoted nicety that this trophy completes the “re-poker” (as Spain’s football community calls a five-time triumph) of Ancelotti’s league title wins in Europe’s top leagues. He’s special, he’s fun to be around, he was an important footballer and his coaching career has ascended him to become European soccer royalty — wise, beneficent, inspirational to his subjects. All conquering.
But let’s not mess around. If you’ve coached Juventus, AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Bayern and Madrid, it’s a reasonable bet that you’ll accumulate league-winning trophies.
It’s satisfying to see Ancelotti add LaLiga to his Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga and Ligue 1 titles; an achievement to mark him down as a cosmopolitan, continental polyglot as well as a manager par excellence.
But this is a championship win that, I’ll argue, has its three podium positions filled by Courtois, the utterly preternatural will to win exhibited by Modric and a clutch of other on-pitch generals plus, in pole position, the startling brilliance of the Vinicius-Benzema partnership.
A total of 90 goals and assists since August across all competitions from the Frenchman and Brazilian. Literally astonishing. Vinicius was four when Benzema produced his first senior goal assist (for Lyon against Metz), and if the Brazilian attacker plays until he’s 36, which is a reasonable hypothesis, Benzema will be eyeing his 50th birthday. They are another footballing version of the “Odd Couple.”
But even if you are a broken-spirited Atleti, Barca or Sevilla fan, you’d have to be massively mean-spirited too in order not to admit that the “Vin-Ben” duo invent some fantastic freestyle jazz out there on the pitch.
What once was no-look football, because Vinicius hadn’t been trained to add tactics to his testosterone, is now no-look football because these two go out and riff on an innate understanding of their mutual tempo and rhythm. Barely a glance is required between them in order for a goal chance to be carved out or tucked away.
In a true sense, they bring the essence of street football to the stadiums of LaLiga every weekend. Bless them a thousand times. Invention, wit, risk, will-to-win, kick-me-if-you-dare, now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t stuff — I’m going to call the sum total magic.
We went through several weeks when Madrid, idling in a low gear until the Grand Prix weekends arrived, needed Courtois to be startlingly good. Usually in “minor” games, when some of the team were in third gear, not fifth, the towering Belgian who, alongside Modric, has gradually assumed a leadership role in this group, would paw away some fantastic effort from his top left or right hand corner and charge down a marauding attacker to save the day in close combat.
His fingerprints are on this trophy as much as they were on each ball he tipped over the bar or around the post in a variety of demanding tests around this country. Had he been injured and out for six or seven games, Madrid certainly would not be wearing the crown this early, and perhaps not at all. But he wasn’t, they are and they deserve admiration and applause.
Of course, given that football is like the ocean’s tides flowing in only to ebb out and flow back again there will be a relatively limited time for back-slapping and lording it over vanquished, weakened foes. Then it’ll all begin again. Madrid have remedial work to do in their first XI and in their squad. Their test now is to repeat. Again and again and again. The thing which has been beyond them for over thirty years, during which Madrid have only once won back-to-back LaLiga titles.
But put your ear to the ground: Benzema performing like a 28-year-old, Vinicius playing like he’s in paradise, Modric still gripped by a fanatical drive to keep winning, Kylian Mbappe potentially joining midfield, defensive reinforcements like Antonio Rudiger, the Bernabéu full, fervent and making more money than ever before.