Victorious in the first five European Cup competitions, Real Madrid are intent on defining an era six decades on.
Crowned European champions more times than any other club, the Spanish giants have their sights set on a third consecutive continental title and on moving ever closer to repeating the feat achieved by that legendary side containing the likes of Alfredo Di Stefano and Paco Gento. We look at the keys to the club’s recent European success.
Real Madrid are the only side to have reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League every season since 2010/11. In that time they have contested and won three finals, and will be aiming to add a fourth European title in five years against Liverpool on Saturday.
There have been four ever-presents in the Madrid line-up over those last seven campaigns, a quartet of players who make essential contributions to the team’s winning mindset:
- Sergio Ramos: the captain and leader of the dressing room, a commanding presence at the back who can also get forward and score crucial goals if need be, just as he did in the 2014 and 2016 finals.
- Marcelo: the heir to Roberto Carlos has proved more than capable of replacing the master full-back. A player who defends with the same relish as he attacks, Marcelo has proven his worth as a provider and a goalscorer, and his ability to get forward helps his side create overlaps.
- Cristiano Ronaldo: a player who has smashed all goalscoring records. With 15 goals in the competition this season, he is once again its leading scorer, while his all-time record of 121 Champions League goals puts him over 20 ahead of nearest challenger Lionel Messi.
- Karim Benzema: perhaps not such a high-profile presence but a clinical finisher all the same. Enjoying the complete confidence of his coach, Benzema has shown himself to be the perfect attacking foil and adept at creating space in attack.
The new breed
The club’s big-name players have dovetailed to perfection with a group of youngsters who have slowly but surely grown in stature. After breaking into the first team gradually, Nacho, Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio have all taken on increasingly important roles, and all with a minimum of fuss. Madrid have an effective back-up plan in place, with fringe players who are as strong as the starting XI.
“I think we’ve got a unique atmosphere here,” said skipper Ramos. “I know we’ve been through tough times when it might have looked like the dressing room was divided, but that was the reality. The spirit here has been fantastic for years now and we’ve answered the doubters. There are no egos and no one trying to take the spotlight for themselves. We’re all winners in that respect.”
The Z Factor
Zidane played a part in Madrid’s 2014 Champions League win, as an assistant to Carlo Ancelotti, soaking up everything he could. He was no stranger to success in the competition, however. During his playing days the Frenchman helped the club win the trophy for a ninth time. And as their head coach he has already lifted it twice more.
Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Zidane is both a fine tactician and an excellent man manager. His charges, who are all self-confessed admirers of Zizou the player, hold him in very high regard, believing that he understands them better than anyone because he has achieved everything there is in the game. That respect is mutual. Content to take a back seat, the coach is happy to let his players soak up the adulation. Laid-back and discreet, he has taken a potentially disruptive dressing room and fashioned a tight-knit group that accepts changes and tough decisions without problem.
“My head hurts sometimes. They’re all so good that it’s tough to pick one over the other. That’s what comes with being a coach, but when you start with an XI you know that you’ve got some very good players on the bench. Just because a player doesn’t start the game doesn’t mean to say they’re not going to play, because they can come on and make the difference. I want everyone to be switched on, which is why I never give them advance notice of who’s going to be starting. As a player that kills you.”
Zinedine Zidane, The Best FIFA Men's Coach 2017
The weight of history
“There's something special about the Champions League,” said Zizou. “You only have to look at the club’s history in the competition to see that. This club’s won more European Cups than anyone, which makes it an important competition for us.”
Call it luck, magic or a love affair, but the fact is that Real Madrid do have a special relationship with this competition. No matter how inconsistent their league form might be – this season being a case in point, with the team finishing third, just as they did in 2014 – whenever the Champions League anthem sounds it seems to bring the best out of Los Blancos.
And should they triumph in Kiev, their next challenge will come in the United Arab Emirates, where they will aim to unseat old rivals Barcelona as the most decorated club in the history of the FIFA Club World Cup.