By Max Reinhardt
Their style is not beautiful. They have never been compared to the best teams of all time. And they are not the Champions League’s defending champions. Sitting ten points clear of their arch nemesis in La Liga’s table, however, Real Madrid is the most interesting team in the world.
The team has taken a different approach to this season than last. Their own coach, Jose Mourinho, has admitted that they might win La Liga without beating Barcelona. Last season, he never would have said that, and his team failed repeatedly. While they did win the Copa del Rey final against Barça in overtime, it did not make up much for defeats in La Liga and the Champions League semifinal.
So far this season, Barcelona beat Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Copa, La Liga, and the Copa del Rey. Real Madrid has tried everything from first-minute goals to stomping on the opponent’s hand after the whistle, but in five matches, they have lost three times, drawn twice, and recorded zero victories. With that ten point lead in the table, however, they do not seem to care. They, unlike Barça, have mowed down all the weaker opponents they face and seem determined to win La Liga in any way possible.
While that philosophy has clearly been successful in La Liga, it raises some questions about how they will approach the Champions League as the round of sixteen arrives. They won every match in the group stage and that success should continue through the round of sixteen; while they may struggle in the away leg this week after traveling to Moscow, they should win handily on aggregate.
After that, however, who knows what will happen to them. If their philosophy is to work around a possible inability to beat one particular team, they seem to have taken their Champions League fate out of their own hands. In other words, if they are resigned to the likelihood that they will lose to Barcelona, then they must hope someone else knocks the Blaugrana out for them. This philosophy is not a full surrender in the Champions League since Barcelona could in fact lose to someone else and Madrid does still have the potential to beat their rivals themselves, but it is rare to see such a big club prioritize the domestic league over the Champions League.
The intrigue of Real is not limited to their philosophy, though. Several of their players are at important moments in their careers. First, there is Karim Benzema. The French striker was horrendous in his first season for Madrid, but has developed over the past two years into a deadly offensive threat. He has been able to improve despite the incredible scrutiny that came with his arrival at one of the biggest clubs in Europe and his expensive price tag. After that first disappointing season for Real, one would have expected Benzema to fade into the background like Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Rafael van der Vaart did before eventually being sold. Instead, he has flourished.
Then there is the superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo. The €96 million man has faced significant criticism. There seems to be a consensus that if he does not win with Real, he will be a career underachiever. This is odd when one looks at his résumé. He is a one-time Ballon d’Or winner and three-time finalist. He is also a Champions League winner and two-time finalist. Furthermore, he broke La Liga’s record for scoring in a single season last year. Sure, he lacks a World Cup Championship, but that is not something he can obtain with Real Madrid. So why does he need to win with Real to be remembered positively? It cannot be because Real is one of Europe’s glamor clubs, because so is Manchester United, the team he did win with.
It may be unfair that Ronaldo faces charges of underachieving as is, but a great competitor would not let the question linger. Ronaldo has an opportunity to erase all doubts, as he is on the brink of leading Real to their first La Liga title since his arrival. What if they won the Champions League too? Then this Real Madrid team legitimizes its superiority. If Real wins La Liga, but Barcelona repeats as winners of the Champions League, this will just be another year in which Barça was best. By winning the double, however, Ronaldo will make it clear that he led a Madrid team to greatness and no one will ever be able to call him an underachiever again.
Finally, there is the captain, Iker Casillas, one of the most decorated men in soccer. He has won La Liga, the Copa del Rey, the Champions League, the European Championship and the World Cup. Despite having played his whole long career for Real, however, the past few years he has found himself surrounded by new teammates with whom he has yet to truly succeed. If this team fails to win many of trophies, it will not hurt his legacy the way it will Ronaldo’s, but as his career winds down, he certainly wants to go out with a bang. He is now armed with a better team than he has been for some years and it will be fun to see if he can push them to chase greatness, or if he will see them settle for the La Liga trophy that they seem sure to win this season.