Here’s to Plucky Little Real Madrid: Potential saviours of the European game

·7-min read
Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema Credit: PA Images
Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema Credit: PA Images

Unpopular opinion: a Liverpool v City final would be boringly predictable, and only Real Madrid can save us from such tedium.

If someone had said, on that famous night in Kyiv when Loris Karius went all Mr Bean and Gareth Bale defied physics to hand Los Blancos a third consecutive Champions League crown, that in less than four years’ time, European football would need a Real Madrid win over English opposition to restore some sense of competitive balance and keep things interesting, that person would have been told clearly and succinctly to keep their views to themselves. “That is a truly terrible opinion,” someone would presumably have replied. “You twat.”

Yet, whilst that’s as maybe, this is – kind of – where we are: needing a Real Madrid win over English opposition to restore some sense of competitive balance and keep things interesting.

Now, there are clearly problems with this statement. Numerous potential objections, and many of them perfectly sage. Real Madrid are, obviously, nobody’s idea of plucky upstarts. They are not a bunch of farmers from some fishing village in the mountains, punching way above their weight and sticking it to the aristocracy, like Villarreal. Rather, playing in their tenth semi-final in 12 seasons, they quite literally are the aristocracy.

Moreover, they are a club whose historic obsession with the commercial revenue generated by Galáctico-level super-stardom, and their maniacally laissez-faire approach to transfer fees, wages and debt, have arguably done more than anyone else to lead us to the point at which we now reside, whereby the finances of the game are so crippled and distorted that the only legitimate way to compete at the pinnacle of European football is with the monstrous private equity that only nation states, oligarchs or vulture capitalists can accrue. They are, of course, run by a tone-deaf nutjob who still insists on the validity of a project that aims to definitively ringfence the top table of European football, in order to fix the cataclysmic financial problems alluded to above, which he himself created. The fact that there is a lack of competitive balance in the first instance is largely down to them.

And yet, pointing the finger of blame is a futile endeavour. Because whoever it lands on – Florentino Perez, definitely – the fact remains that at the elite level, European football is broken. It is going to stay broken, and with UEFA proposing to grant qualification to teams based on their coefficient rankings from 2024, it will only become more so. The days of genuine plucky upstarts making a serious fist of it on a regular basis are long gone, and our notions of balance need to change with the times. However unpalatable it may be, the most we can now hope for is the odd Ajax-esque run, or failing that, at least some pan-European interest at the sharp end of things.

We are in danger of losing this. Were City to emerge from the Bernabéu victorious, it would mean a third all-English final in four years, with more seemingly to come. And whilst it is a commonly held belief that these things are cyclical – Spain had the most quarter-finalists in every season from 2011/12 to 2017/18, while English clubs predominated in the latter stages between 2004-2011 (despite Barcelona winning it three times), and Italy before that – it is perhaps more accurate to state that these things have been cyclical. Such is the ever-growing disparity in financial muscle between the Premier League and the rest of Europe, there exists the distinct possibility that this particular shift in the power dynamics could become enshrined.

Even if this is just a phase, it is a dull one. The fundamental point of the Champions League is to pit sides against each other who do not ordinarily meet over the course of a season. And regardless of the fact that the highest echelon has already shrunk to such an extent that it can sometimes feel like Liverpool play Real a few times a year, they do not. There is still something – not much, but something – of the unknown about it as a fixture. Liverpool and City, on the other hand, played each other three weeks ago. And again, a week after that.

For Europe’s Premier competition, these all-English clashes are too familiar. And more pressingly, they are becoming grimly predictable. Ever since the quarter-final draw kept them apart, a Liverpool v City final has seemed something like a near-inevitability. Sure, there would be some tough ties en route – the odd scare at la Cerámica or some such – but all things being equal their relentless, unerring brilliance would see them both through, and everything would happen as nature intended.

Sadio Mane celebrates his goal Credit: PA Images
Sadio Mane celebrates his goal Credit: PA Images

Because this is the way of Klopp and Guardiola’s sides: unerring, relentless, and blindingly brilliant. Yet, impressive as it is, this comes at a cost: namely, their relentlessness is such that they almost defy narrative, their brilliance transcending the jeopardy that drama needs to survive. We saw it in the 2018/19 Premier League run-in, and we will see it again this year, as they both win all their remaining fixtures and City emerge victorious, a 90th-minute Rúben Dias screamer saving their bacon against Newcastle to keep the momentum intact. We know how this ends, which is to the undeniable detriment of any story.

Were they to meet in the final, it must be said that things would be different. Their encounters are invariably frenetic and intense things which are far too close to call, and we would doubtless rub our hands together as we talked up the newest, freshest, most momentous instalment yet of this is-it-isn’t-it rivalry, with the greatest of prizes up for grabs, unprecedented quadruples and Pep’s European hex on the line. But really, there wouldn’t be much for the neutral to chew on in the aftermath. Whether it yielded a first title for City, or a second for Klopp, the feeling would simply be that the probable had happened.

Not, however, with this particular iteration of Real Madrid.

This is a side back from the dead, and in that, there is narrative to sink teeth into. This is a side who has scaled these heights before but was not meant to again, the post-Ronaldo years supposed to usher in a slump like that of the Galáctico era, when they failed to make the last eight for six successive campaigns. This is a side possessing the same, now 98-year-old, midfield three that conquered Europe way back in the 2010s, and a 34-year-old centre-forward inexplicably in the form of his career. This is a side led by Carlo Ancelotti, whose own glory years were said to be behind him, and who – in what is perhaps the starkest illustration of the gulf between the divisions – was last season toiling away at a club now 18th in the Premier League.

There is an anachronism, too, to the way that they play. Their press isn’t cohesive, they rarely top distance-covered charts, and their attacking patterns are not drilled to within an inch of perfection. They are reliant on moments of magic from magic players, which is the absolute antithesis of how those in the know say football in 2022 should be played. Stylistically and in terms of personnel, they are a relic from a bygone era; for much of who they are and what they represent, this is something of a twilight.

Maybe it’s not as grand as all that. Maybe – probably, even – teams with great players like Modrić and Benzema will always be able to beat great teams. Yet, it is impossible to escape the sense that for them to do so here would be an upset, and that were this bunch of aging has-beens, a Spanish side in the era of English supremacy, playing heritage football in the age of the Gegenpress, to come out on top, this would arguably be the crowning achievement for most of them. And in that, is an antidote of sorts to the relentless march of relentless predictability. In that, at least, some way of keeping things interesting.

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