APRIL 22 ― Do you know when Real Madrid last became Spanish champions?
Unless you follow Spanish football closely enough to know the answer, I’d guess most people would assume it is not long since they won La Liga.
After all, with Cristiano Ronaldo banging in goals at an unprecedented rate, Sergio Ramos keeping them out at the other end, Gareth Bale and Marcelo flying down the wings, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric bossing the midfield, they can hardly fail to have gained domestic supremacy…right?
Although Los Blancos have indeed won two Champions League titles in the last three seasons, in Spain it has been a different matter because they have not been crowned champions since 2012.
That’s a long time ago. To put it into perspective, their manager at the time was none other than Jose Mourinho.
Mourinho who, since leading Madrid to that piece of silverware, has endured a bitter end to his love affair with the club, rejoined Chelsea, led them to the Premier League title, endured a bitter end to his love affair at Stamford Bridge as well, and now nearly completed a full season at Manchester United. I told you it’s been a long time.
Throughout that period, Real Madrid have been trying but failing to land another league championship. Mourinho couldn’t repeat his feat, Carlo Ancelotti couldn’t do it, Rafa Benitez didn’t even get close and now Zinedine Zidane hasn’t managed it either, with Barcelona (2013, 2015, 2016) and Atletico Madrid (2014) coming out on top instead.
Against Barcelona in Sunday night’s ‘El Clasico’ at the Bernabeu, however, Real have the chance to effectively wrap up the title with six games still remaining.
They are currently leading Barca by three points, with a game in hand, and head into this weekend’s meeting knowing that victory would also give them head to head advantage over their closest rivals ― the criteria which is used in Spain to split tied teams, rather than goal difference ― after a 1-1 draw at the Nou Camp earlier in the season.
So victory would effectively leave Real seven points ahead, meaning they would only need to win three of their remaining six games, or gain two wins and two draws, to be certain of winning the league. And that would be pretty much a foregone conclusion.
El Clasico is always a huge occasion, and the fact that this one is effectively a title decider makes it even more compelling.
So too does the fact that it comes at the end of a dramatic week which has seen Barcelona dumped out of the Champions League with a conclusive 3-0 aggregate defeat to Juventus, while Real advanced to the semi-finals ― where they will play local rivals Atletico ― with an extra time victory over Bayern Munich.
Zidane’s team really rode their luck in that game, needing two offside goals from Ronaldo and a harshly awarded red card to Bayern midfielder Arturo Vidal to overcome their German opponents.
But that’s nothing new, because Real have rode their luck all season, and the most common criticism of Zidane is that his team’s position at the top of the table has come through good fortune rather than good play.
Take, for example, last weekend’s meeting with Sporting Gijon, who are in the relegation zone. Twice, Sporting took the lead. Twice, Real equalised almost immediately. And the game appeared destined to finish as a 2-2 draw until Isco popped up with a splendid winner…six seconds before the end of normal time.
And then take, for another example, the game at Barcelona in December. It was a poor game, but Barca went ahead through Luis Suarez early in the second half and that appeared to be that, with Real rarely threatening to get back on level terms.
But then, in the very last minute, Ramos met a free-kick from Kroos with a thumping header and, from nowhere, they had claimed a point ― but only after, in another moment of good fortune, Casemiro headed a goalbound effort by Sergi Roberto off the line in the dying seconds of injury time.
Late goals, lucky goals, offside goals, dubious penalties awarded, obvious penalties not awarded to their opposition…they have all fallen in Real Madrid’s favour this season, and it would be easy to build an argument ― as many people are doing, especially in Barcelona ― that their good results have been fortunate rather than deserved.
I don’t buy it. Defending himself from those allegations, last weekend Zidane himself argued that “you make your own luck in football.” And although that line is a bit of a cliché, I agree with him.
You give yourself far more chance of getting dodgy penalties if your players spend a lot of time in the opposing team’s penalty area; you give yourself a lot more chance of scoring offside goals if you put a lot of crosses into the middle; you give yourself a lot more chance of scoring in the last few minutes if you are attacking in the last few minutes.
Real Madrid have done all those things this season, and although they haven’t always produced flowing football, they have always persisted, always believed in themselves, always put their opponents under maximum mental pressure through their self-belief and sheer will to win.
That has been the big difference between themselves and a Barcelona team who far too often amble through their games without appearing to know how or whether they are going to win.
So don’t be surprised if, on Sunday night, Real Madrid produce another piece of “luck” to put themselves on the brink of winning the title. And they will have deserved it.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.