After 12 years of failure in Europe, ‘Los Blancos’ found their way back to glory. They were able to overcome being the shadow of Barcelona, winning 4 Champions league trophies in 5 years by sticking to the same team, not spending enormous amounts each season and trusting in the youth academy. Zinedine Zidane proved to be the key of defining an era with a golden generation that was close to the collapse after 3 heartbreaking semi-final losses.
22 November 2015. It’s the day of the mighty “El Clásico” and Real Madrid are expecting to close the points difference with the champions. A Barca team without Messi starts the game in an impressive way and quickly breaks the deadlock with Luis Suarez after 11 minutes. A goal from Neymar would follow, just 5 minutes before the break, sending Real Madrid for a must needed half-time talk. However, not much would change, as the entrance of Messi adds another two goals from Iniesta and Suarez to finish sinking Madrid in their own home soil. Miserably, they ended the 2014-2015 season trophy-less with a new manager, such as Rafa Benitez, that did not live up to the expectations since his appointment in July 2015.
24 May 2014. The Champions League’ final was taking place at the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon, Portugal, between Spanish sides Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid. “Los merengues” won the match 4–1 after extra time, with goals from Gareth Bale, Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo following a last-minute header by Sergio Ramos. Though Real Madrid secured a record 10th title in the competition, 12 quiet years had passed since their ninth victory. Coach Carlo Ancelotti and assistant Zinedine Zidane were managing the team; it seemed like the dawn of a new era.
All hopes vanished. Madrid failed to maintain the same form the following season and that eventually led to the sack of Carlo. Rafa Benitez arrived at the team, but he didn’t last long after a reportedly bust-up with Ronaldo and other key members of the team. We’re back where we started, 22 November 2015. It’s the day of the mighty “El Clásico” and Real Madrid are expecting to close on the point difference with the champions. Well, now we know how the history ends.
After this tragic loss, Rafa Benitez commented on his departure by calling it unfair due to the lack of time for building the team, with a team like Real Madrid that cannot possibly wait. As a solution, Florentino Perez took a risky call and decided to trust the legends: Zidane was appointed first team coach in January 2016.
Having previously succeeded with the Castilla team, Zidane was part of the Ancelotti staff in the 2014 Copa de Rey and Champions League victories. There were doubts initially concerning Zidane’s experience, as he hadn’t had any action as first team coach, however, he proved to be another Pep Guardiola. Pep was in charge of Barcelona B squad before initially taking the first squad, and we all know what happened with Barcelona during those years. Zidane made no signings in January, as he believed in a team that was already full of stars.
Fighting for La Liga was a tough task for Zizou, as Barca was 12 points ahead of the “galácticos”. Though they went out victorious from Camp Nou in April 2016, the domestic title was out of reach and Zidane knew it well. What did he focus on, then? The Champions League, the club’s obsession.
Zidane put on a team with two changes from the winning 2014 squad: Di Maria and Casillas were out. Under the new scheme, Real Madrid had an amazing performance and went on to win their ties with Roma, Wolfsburg and Man City and settled their final against the local rivals of Atlético de Madrid. The final was held in Milan, where both teams could not find the win in 120 minutes with a 1:1 draw. In the penalties, the first 7 shots succeeded until Juanfran’s penalty hit the post. Then, as expected, Cristiano Ronaldo scored the winning penalty to bring home the title.
Cristiano Ronaldo celebrating the winning penalty in the Final’s shootout of 2016 in Milan.
Was it beginners luck for Zizou? Not really. Many had claimed that Madrid winning streak can be attributed to luck, but there were signs that this Real team was going through the steps of the Barcelona golden era of 2009-2012, where they won two Champions League trophies. Zidane was pressured by many to strengthen the already strong team, but he refused to. He brought back Morata from his loan from Juventus and promoted Marco Asensio and Lucas Vasquez to the first team. A risk for many, but Zidane proved to be a master at his work with his brilliant view from his time at the Castilla team.
Real Madrid were used to spend lavishly every season, thus, Zidane’s decision seemed counter-intuitive, but it proved to be the best decision. The 2016-2017 season was one to remember. The Merengues started the season by winning the UEFA Super Cup, with the FIFA Club World Cup following in December. The team seemed compact and they were leading the league by 8 points. Their defeat in the Copa del Rey was not a big deal, as things were going great in both La Liga and UCL.
Real defeated Napoli, as well as the favorites, Bayern Munich, in a tense home match to set up yet another clash against Atlético Madrid in the semis. Cristiano Ronaldo was having another great year, and after scoring 5 goals against Bayern in two games, he scored another hat-trick against Atlético. The Portuguese was unstoppable. Real Madrid were a force to be reckoned once again, and this was all down to Zidane who kept faith in a team that had already proven to be special.
Moreover, the team was crowned as champions of Spain by winning La Liga after 5 years of absence. Yet another success credited to Zizou. On the other hand, returning to the UCL, the final against Juventus started great for them with yet another goal from Cristiano, and even though Mandzukic equalized just before half-time, Madrid was the better team by far. The second time was an absolute demolition. Goals from Cristiano, Casemiro and Asensio were enough to end Juventus’s dream.
Three Champions League crowns in 4 years, two of them in a row, a new record which belongs to the legendary Real Madrid. But where did all this come from? As mentioned above, Real Madrid followed a good example. They trusted their project to a legendary player, who knew everything about the game. Zidane was the hero of this great success, along with the great players who stuck together as a team and formed a consistent group. Only Pepe and Gareth Bale were missing from the starting line-up that was in Milan in the 2016 triumph, though they were substitutes. 95% of the team was the same, and the result? Victory.
It is summer of 2017 and there is a new season ahead. A lot of expectations once more. There is always the question during the transfer market, what will Zidane do? He signs two rather unknown names for the public, Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos, who would both eventually be reserves. Another not-so Real Madrid way to start the season, but the board believes in Zidane’s plans once more.
A perfect start of the season with two victories against FC Barcelona in the Super Cup showed the world that ‘Los Merengues’ were still the kings. However, by the end of November, things started to turn out not as expected. Real is behind Barca and Ronaldo is mostly blamed as he has only scored 4 La Liga goals, his worst ever Real Madrid run. To top this whole situation, there is an El Clasico defeat at home in late December with a 0:3 result that seems to mark the end of this golden Madrid generation.
The second half of the season belonged once more to the mighty Madrid who, after falling behind in La Liga and crushing out of the Copa del Rey against Leganes, focused all their strength to the one trophy they always want, the Champions League. After drawing PSG in the round of 16, many would have expected Real to get eliminated early this year. As we saw, this didn’t happen thanks to a sensational performance by Cristiano and Marcelo are enough to beat PSG over both legs on a 5:2 aggregate.
Next followed Juventus, who were seeking revenge for their last final encounter. Another inspirational Madrid conquers Torino, with two goals from Cristiano Ronaldo (one of them a stunning bicycle kick) and another Marcelo late goal. The return leg would prove to be quite a headache as Madrid fell 0:3 until the very last seconds. Lucas Vasquez was fouled by Benatia, a very controversial decision which would bring up a huge debate. Ronaldo does not miss the penalty, Real are through. A bit of luck, a bit of destiny, a lot of determination.
The polemic action of Benatia against Lucas Vasquez that cost Juventus a spot in the UEFA Champions League final.
Next comes Bayern Munich, who would face Real for the 4th time in 6 seasons. Real keep their nerves and manage a comeback in Munich by winning 1:2. Everything is left to play for at Santiago Bernabeu. As he did in Munich, Joshua Kimmich opens the score again in Madrid, but two goals from Benzema, one of them caused by a horrible mistake by Ulreich, is enough to send Real to the final. Bayern managed to grab a goal by James, which is not enough. A bit of luck maybe, again. A bit of destiny, again. A lot of determination, for sure. Again.
Real Madrid – Liverpool, the big final. Zidane decides to put on the same team as he did in last season’s final. The same players, the same philosophy, almost the same result. Real Madrid wins 3:1 with an amazing Gareth Bale bicycle goal after 5 minutes of coming on. The other two goals from Benzema and Bale are perhaps the two most miserable mistakes from a keeper in the UCL. A bit of luck, a bit of destiny, A lot of determination. AGAIN. Real Madrid have done the unthinkable, they have won the trophy for a third time in a row, a record which may last for a very long time. Zidane has become the most successful Real Madrid coach in terms of success ratio, with the less spending, and the most consistent team.
So how did Real Madrid claim their throne again? By believing in their team. By letting a team grow together for 4 or 5 years. By believing in the youth academy. By believing that success is not guaranteed by big spending. Salute to Real Madrid and Zinedine Zidane for their remarkable achievement. What next for ‘Los Blancos’ now that Zidane has left? We must wait and see, but one thing is for sure; the team from Madrid is king of Europe once again.